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.

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.