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.

Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

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.

Scent of Love - Symphony in C - 7pm Dress Rehearsal

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.

Little Atlas - Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

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.

After The Rain - Symphony in C - 7pm Dress Rehearsal

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.

One evening, four works

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 29.

LET’S start with the very best bit first. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had a particularly good night on Tuesday under Australian Ballet music director Nicolette Fraillon’s leadership. The quadruple bill Chroma covers a lot of ground: Mozart for Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze, Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart for a new piece by Stephen Baynes and Joby Talbot’s White Stripes-inspired score, written in 2006 for the Wayne McGregor work that gives this program its title.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Talbot’s music is gorgeously textured and richly coloured as well as providing a super-solid yet flexible base for McGregor’s out-there movement. It rocks and it rolls, often luxuriously and lyrically, and the AOBO conveyed the excitement and tension. The Kylian works are performed to Mozart’s Six German Dances and the sublime slow movements from his piano concertos numbers 21 and 23 (at the first performance the AB’s principal pianist Stuart Macklin was the fine soloist), and as a bonus Fraillon threw in the allegro first movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D to provide a lively entr’acte between the two short Kylians.

McGregor’s piece is not without intimations of human connection but they are fleeting and enigmatic, as is so much else. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies.

On Tuesday night the AB cast of 10 didn’t entirely get on top of Chroma’s fantastically difficult transitions, many happening in a microsecond, from crisp to liquid and back again. There wasn’t enough bite and drama, although plenty of lovely moments in a work that repays repeated viewings. Andrew Killian, Brett Chynoweth and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson had plenty of attack in the fierce trio in the middle of the work and Amber Scott and Adam Bull gave a beautiful account of the quiet pas de deux that immediately follows.

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze were given rousing performances on Tuesday, possibly a little over the top in Sechs Tanze but in keeping with its gaiety in the face of whatever the fates decree. Four couples, dressed in what look like 18th century undergarments, engage in lots of horseplay, bouncing and jumping in unexpected, often surreal, but very playful ways. They could be servants breaking loose while the master is away, perhaps. There is certainly an undercurrent of trouble. The piece is introduced with the sound of thunder and at the end, when the music stops, the men and women retreat a little fearfully – an aspect of the work not fully brought out at this performance.

Despite one or two scrappy moments Petite Mort (performed before Sechs Tanze) again demonstrated the AB’s affinity for Kylian. In this ballet rousing is indeed the mot juste, as the title is a euphemism for orgasm. There are men with fencing foils, women in corsets, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

In the middle came Baynes’s new Art to Sky. At its premiere it felt uncertain in tone and looked uninspiring in construction. There was a main man (Andrew Killian), a woman who seemed to represent a romantic ideal (Madeleine Eastoe, wasted) and a ballerina with a tiara (Lana Jones), but little sense of tension or compelling purpose. Elements of jocularity emerged that had the audience tittering a little unsurely and that felt unmotivated. Perhaps it would have been better to revive one of Baynes’s earlier one-act ballets, of which there are many stronger examples.

The costumes and set for Art to Sky do not help matters – there is a kind of grotto effect and most of the dancers are dressed as if in very neat practice gear. Hugh Colman, responsible for both aspects of the design, appeared to be having a very rare off day. Only days before Chroma I admired Colman’s charming design for Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia and he is also the designer of the glamorous tutus for Ballet Imperial, part of the Imperial Suite program that is in repertory with Chroma.

The decision to have two mixed-bill programs rather than the usual one would appear to be a very good one. It’s hard to sell 20 performances of anything other than a known story ballet, so to divide the season between Chroma and Imperial Suite could pay dividends. If audiences aren’t attracted by the likes of McGregor and Kylian, there’s the classical double of Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to offer a big tutu fest.

Chroma alternates with Imperial Suite. Both end on May 17.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on May 1.