David Hallberg in Coppélia

In late November David Hallberg told The New York Times that he wanted to “just step onstage quietly here” – the American dancer was referring to Sydney – “and see what transpires”. Realistically there was never going to be much chance of quiet when Hallberg made his first entrance as Franz in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia last night. A packed auditorium which included a significant number of current and former dancers saw to that. Hallberg’s re-emergence after a two-and-a-half year layoff due to an ankle injury was big news internationally, but it was more than that. Hallberg has spent the past 12 months of his rehabilitation with the AB at its home base of Melbourne and he’s like family.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg during their Coppelia curtain call. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg has been very careful to talk about his return to the stage not as the end of a process, but a beginning. His recovery has been long and laborious and over the past couple of weeks Hallberg has spoken candidly about its difficulties and what led him to seek out the AB medical team, led by principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he told me recently.

No wonder he looked so happy last night, getting his feet wet (his phrase) in a ballet that celebrates love and community. (In the figure of deluded doll-maker Dr Coppelius it also introduces a splash of darkness as a corrective to all that sweetness. Where there is sunshine there is also shadow, and growing up means learning to accept that.)

Franz was a role debut for Hallberg and something of a departure for a man widely acclaimed for his aristocratic roles. Could he be credible as an uncomplicated village lad? Indeed he could. Hallberg’s Franz is a young man vitally interested in everything, for a second. This girl, that girl, this friend who has just turned up, another friend who is hanging about, that older woman with whom he dances and kisses gallantly on the hand. He has the attention span of a mayfly but wherever it is directed there is a little beam of light. Most cherishable moment – of many? When, in Act II, Dr Coppelius offers Franz a drink that surely anyone would regard with suspicion, Hallberg comes up with an endearing touch of pride at being thought worldly.

No wonder Amber Scott’s Swanilda is prepared to persist with him, even when he has absolutely no idea – not the smallest part of a smidgeon of a clue – what she wants from him in the “stalk of wheat”dance. Scott falls into a few stock village-girl mannerisms in the first act but in the second act, in which she impersonates Dr Coppelius’s “daughter”-doll, she uses the theatricality of the situation with wit and brio.

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Coppélia’s slender narrative is carried along joyously by the bountiful Delibes score, which includes the irresistible mazurka and czardas in Act I. Hallberg said he had been told in rehearsal to “simplify, simplify, simplify” his mazurka, and clearly listened to the advice. His naturalness and ease, along with his musicality, made the heart sing.

In Act III Swanilda and Franz are seen in a more serious light. They are part of a solemn ceremony to mark their marriage and their new maturity. Hallberg and Scott’s adagio in the wedding pas deux was radiant; her variation airy, poised and delicate; and his variation full of eye-catching expressions of elegant classicism. His remarkable feet are still a thing of great wonder and I can still see in my mind’s eye the gracious forward extension of his leg from a beautifully high retiré: the silly young man is improving his understanding of how to behave and widening his horizons.

At first blush Coppélia may seem little more than a lively cartoon with more hummable music than any score has a right to possess (the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was in the very safe stewardship of guest conductor Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s music director). In the right hands, though, it is very human. That quality was to the fore last night in an emotional evening of many treasures (Sharni Spencer’s Prayer: divine), a few smudged moments and an audience united in delight.

Hallberg has said he is looking no further than Coppélia at the moment. The principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and premier danseur of the Bolshoi will then assess what is right for him. He and Scott have three more performances, on December 16, 19 and 21.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.

Vanguard

 The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 30

GEORGE Balanchine was indisputably a game-changer, to use the Australian Ballet’s phrase in explaining the ethos behind Vanguard, the triple bill that opened in Sydney on April 30. The game-changer tag is somewhat less cut and dried in the case of Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor, who are also on the bill, but you have to give the program a name. And Vanguard is certainly a lot punchier than Trilogy, which is what the AB prosaically used to call such evenings. You could argue, I suppose, that Trilogy was an exact description, but gee, it’s not catnip, is it?

Let me take you back to one of the AB’s contributions to the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, in which it danced, on the one bill, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Nacho Duato’s Por vos muero and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was dynamite. The AB called it Trilogy.

But that was then. Now back to Vanguard. The title may be a little imprecise but the program works in giving a sweeping view of what a classical company considers its territory. It’s exhilarating in its scope and comes with the bonus of wonderful music. Under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra has as many changes of direction over the evening as do the dancers, starting with Paul Hindemith’s modernist Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments). This was a Balanchine commission, although it took a few years for music and dance to come together. Theme with Four Variations was written in 1940 and received its premiere as a concert work in 1944. Balanchine’s ballet appeared in 1946.

Vanguard ends with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 (2009), danced to Steve Reich’s minimalist, driving Double Sextet, a piece for which Reich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In between, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura uses a collage of Baroque and Baroque-style excerpts, including two movements from Lukas Foss’s bijou Salomon Rossi Suite. Fun degrees-of-separation note: Foss studied composition with Hindemith in New York, and he wasn’t just a composer; he was also a noted pianist. And guess who was the pianist when Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperments) premiered on the concert stage? That would be Lukas Foss.

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

The palette is particularly rich and relies on dancers with acute musical responses. There are no characters or narratives to fall back on. Moreover, with many of the dancers cast in more than one of the works at any performance they have to be adept at switching from upright Balanchine to twisty, bendy McGregor within the space of an hour. On opening night in Sydney principals Lana Jones and Adam Bull and senior artist Rudy Hawkes scored the trifecta and danced in the Kylian as well – a feat something akin to an opera singer being asked to perform in Baroque, Romantic and 20th-century style in successive acts.

By the way, nine of the AB’s 11 principal artists appeared on opening night. That’s not something you often see. And if the casting stays as it is, it seems Jones will get precisely one performance off out of the 20 in Sydney. Respect. (Or does it mean the AB lacks depth: discuss.)

The remaining two principal artists, Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, have been a little elusive of late but are lined up for Vanguard. Casting is online – take a look.

Balanchine said of ballet that “the visual spectacle is the essential element”. The assertion may seem at odds with The Four Temperaments’ austerity of costuming (black tights and white T-shirts for the men; plain black leotards for the women) and set (none). Balanchine, however, was talking about the spectacle of movement. There is no meaning other than that provided by bodies in time, space and with music as four discrete scenes named after the ancient Greek humours follow three iterations of the score’s themes.

When the 4Ts premiered it was costumed rather fantastically and busily. Those costumes were banished in 1951. “When things hindered the dance Balanchine eliminated them,” says former dancer Mary Ellen Moylan in a documentary on Balanchine. (Moylan is described in the film, Dancing for Mr B., by Maria Tallchief as the first Balanchine ballerina.) Moylan also said that the choreographer made great music – such as that by Stravinsky – “greater by the things he showed us visually”.

An intriguing view on this stripped-back look for the 4Ts was put forward in Vanity Fair in its March edition of this year. The magazine noted that in September 1951 the film of A Streetcar named Desire was released, in which Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) appeared to much advantage in a tight white T-shirt. The look took off immediately and Vanity Fair specifically links that trend with Balanchine’s November 1951 decision to re-costume the 4Ts as we now see it. Well, it’s an idea.

The first performance of The Four Temperaments in the AB’s Sydney season happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. It was a timely tribute with a seminal piece. The 4Ts is astringent, precise, sophisticated, cerebral and incredibly exposing. It was thrilling to see it again, even if the ballet’s magisterial command and patrician wit and elegance were insufficiently projected.

There are two reasons for this. The first is one of space: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House so often makes dancers look hemmed in. The 4Ts didn’t have the room to move that it had in 2003 in the American Masters program staged at the Capitol Theatre. The second reason is one of temperament, funnily enough, and the observation isn’t restricted only to this ballet. AB dancers are too often reticent in imposing their personalities and will in performance (it’s perhaps something related to the no-stars vibe of the company). I’m not talking about fake smiles or look-at-me superficialities; rather of largeness of spirit, clarity of intention and refinement of expression resulting in inner impulses being translated into movement that speaks rather than merely exists as an attractive object.

In relation to the 4Ts, the women of the corps were less warrior-like than the movement suggests, with its stabbing, advancing high kicks and jutting pelvises. While I say the stage was too small for the action, it’s also the case that on opening night the corps fell short in filling the stage dramatically. They were too tame; lacking in pride and ownership in a ballet where the women, choreographically speaking, lord it over the men.

There was much pleasure, however, in Jones’s force-of-nature Choleric – her turns were ferocious – and Leanne Stojmenov’s Sanguinic. Stojmenov was springy and elastic when needed and articulately captured the importance and value of Balanchine’s transfers of weight. The circle of low lifts were plush and pillowy, and in this Stojmenov was ably abetted by newly minted principal artist Ty King-Wall.

Kevin Jackson’s Melancholic was powerful and transfixing until the final moments, when he ran out of stage and back mobility for that astonishing exit in reverse. Adam Bull could be more free and expansive in the opening moments of Phlegmatic but he gains in stage presence with each appearance.

In complete contrast to the 4Ts, Kylian’s Bella Figura (1995) has a tentative, questioning quality laced with tenderness. It suits the company well. Pointe shoes are gone and movement comes in swirls and curves, sometimes serene, sometimes less so as swirls contract into twitches. It’s a dreamy, fragmentary, sensual piece that was beautifully danced by its cast of nine on opening night, although again space was an issue.

And another thing. Memory must always be consulted with caution, but its persistence is nevertheless telling. I find it impossible to see any performance of Bella Figura without comparing it to that seen in 2000 as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was at the generously sized Capitol Theatre and I remember being able to see it more clearly than just the other day. Perhaps the lighting state is exactly the same but the theatres are different, so I doubt it. At the Sydney Opera House Bella Figura looked more shadowy, and not in a good way. The lighting made the dancers harder to read, although it was possible to see that corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow, by far the most junior of the cast, was outstanding. Miwako Kubota was wonderful and Jones and Daniel Gaudiello were quite lovely in the final scene in which tension and release are quietly and enigmatically explored but not necessarily resolved.

That said, in my mind’s eye – as Shakespeare has it – I could still see performing in this ballet Steven Heathcote and Miranda Coney, Joshua Consadine and Nicole Rhodes, Sarah Peace and Felicia Palanca, all long gone from the AB. Funny thing, memory.

Dyad 1929 ruthlessly banishes any shadows. It’s a space-age ballet that dazzles with its bright white setting and bodies stretched, extended, manipulated and distorted to the max as the Reich music inexorably powers forward. Jones, Stojmenov and Gaudiello stood out in a cast of stand-outs at the opening. Dana Stephensen looked pleased as punch to be pulled every which way. Bull and Amber Scott scored with a sexy duo, Jones was sensational in a solo that turned her back into a question mark and there was always something to please the eye, in an insistent way.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

What it means is difficult to discern. If the movement speaks for itself, if that’s all there is, what’s with the program notes? You might be able to intuit Dyad 1929‘s nods to Antarctic exploration, what with all that white. You can find that the ballet’s name, if you peruse the notes, refers to the year of Diaghilev’s death and thus to the great impresario’s adventurousness. But you have to do your reading to get the picture.

There’s no doubt that Dyad 1929 looks amazing and is expertly constructed. And that the 4Ts, crisp as a glorious autumn day, still looks the revolutionary piece.

Vanguard, Sydney, until May 18. Melbourne, June 6-17.