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is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947).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

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

Murphy

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

Murphy

Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

Murphy

Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.