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is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947).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

New York Dialects, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 and 21.

The Australian Ballet returned to the stage in February with Summertime at the Ballet – a Melbourne-only gala celebration after last year’s disappointments. New York Dialects was something else entirely; a manifesto really. This was new artistic director David Hallberg saying this is me and this is where I want to take you. 

So where were we going? To an unaccustomed level of brilliance right through the company’s ranks if the two Balanchines were any guide. On opening night (April 6) Serenadewas beyond luscious and The Four Temperaments – such a bracing work – was dispatched with cool sophistication. 

But first to Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark, which fittingly sat between the two Balanchines and not only because it’s central to Hallberg’s view of what ballet audiences need. On a deeper level Watermark knitted the program together. The three works vibrated as one with Watermark as the conduit.

Adam Elmes in Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

It was something of a coup to have Tanowitz here as the American contemporary choreographer rockets up international ballet companies’ wish-lists, a situation made possible by the face she and Hallberg go back a long way. He commissioned her to make a work for American Ballet Theatre’s Incubator new choreography program when he was its director and she made a dance film with him last year that was one of his very last performances. They have been friends for more than a decade, which is how Hallberg was able to get into her calendar for his very first commission at TAB.

Watermark is named after its phenomenal score, written by lauded young American composer Caroline Shaw in 2019 and expanded for Tanowitz’s 30-minute ballet (let’s call it a ballet; it was made for a ballet company). Shaw’s music dances with Beethoven’s third piano concerto, sometimes quoting directly but excitingly taking its own path. This duality of a living composer communing with a giant of the past is a quality also embedded in Tanowitz’s dance, albeit more glancingly. (Watermark is such a beautiful and apt title, evoking the idea and the delicacy of something overlaid on something else but visible only when held to the light.)  

Watermark is conceived on a grand scale for 18 dancers, mostly men (and mostly from the coryphée and corps ranks). The gender ratio roughly reverses that in Serenade, with its indelible opening of 17 women standing with one arm upstretched to the heavens. Watermark alludes to that gesture of wonder and mystery, as it does to some shapes from The Four Temperaments and the wider ballet canon. 

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

Unusually, the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House was opened to the back. It created a deep space, gorgeously lit by Jon Buswell, where groups or individuals danced, stood, sat or reclined. To the front there were flurries of hopping, skittering, scattering activity, fast and precise or quietly contemplative. Clusters formed and dissolved, people came and went, simply dressed in white by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.

This is a plotless work but questions arose nonetheless. Who are these people? What are they thinking? Where are they going? Can I join in, particularly in that brief circle dance up the back? Who is that divine young man given an achingly lovely solo? (That would be Adam Elmes, one of the most junior members of the company.)

It was a joy to see how Tanowitz’s contemporary sensibility meshed with the classical vocabulary, particularly in the razor-sharp footwork, buoyant vertical jumps and sideways jetés that suddenly morphed into something unexpected, eccentric even. Tanowitz’s impulses could be thought austere, given the pristine quality of each movement, but that movement looked rich and juicy on the dancers. A beautiful conundrum, as was the fact that a work this big felt so intimate. 

Dimity Azoury in Serenade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The gifts were not given up lightly and Watermark, with its huge amount of detail and multiple focus points, could be seen many times. Heard again too, because there was so much from Shaw to absorb, as there was in Tchaikovsky (Serenade) and Hindemith (The Four Temperaments). The Opera Australia Orchestra and Nicolette Fraillon had a great opening night as did solo pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Duncan Salton. Simon Thew conducted the performance I saw on April 21, with Cassomenos the soloist in both Watermark and The Four Temperaments.

One could have forgiven TAB for not looking entirely match fit given – the brief gala season apart – its long absence from the stage. No indulgence was needed. There were standout performances wherever one looked, none more gratifying than that of soloist Nathan Brook (a stunning Phlegmatic, The Four Temperaments, April 21). In an announcement made on opening night, Brook won both prizes in the 2020 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards – the Rising Star and People’s Choice awards. The voters clearly got it right. 

The Sydney season of New York Dialects ends April 24. Melbourne, June 3-12.