When Peggy van Praagh was appointed the foundation artistic director of the Australian Ballet, the mumbling began. Under the direction of the former ballet mistress of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, the naysayers predicted that the new Australian company was bound to become a replica of the Royal Ballet.
To some extent that was true. While Van Praagh made a public commitment to commission Australian choreographers and designers, the early repertoire encompassed some of the English ballets she knew well, among them John Cranko’s The Lady and the Fool and Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous, followed by La Fille mal gardee and The Dream. In the years of van Praagh’s co-direction with Robert Helpmann, the company’s Ashton repertoire quickly expanded with Cinderella, Façade, Monotones and Two Pigeons.
But the Ashton embrace was soon to end. The last performances of The Dream by the Australian Ballet were in 1980. And while Birthday Offering entered the company’s repertoire in 1989 and Fille was reprised a few too many times, a succession of Australian Ballet artistic directors turned their attention to an international smorgasbord of works from the United States and Europe, and of course from Australian choreographers including Stephen Baynes, Stanton Welch and Graeme Murphy.
After the long famine, Ashton’s ballets made a welcome return this week with the company’s triple bill under the umbrella title, The Dream. Ashton repetiteurs have hovered around the company in the past few weeks, setting Monotones II (Lynn Wallis), Symphonic Variations (Wendy Ellis Somes and Malin Thoors) and The Dream (Christopher Carr in Sydney and Anthony Dowell in London). The result was worth all the logistical effort. The company adapted to Ashton’s neoclassicism and the dancers interpreted the work with style and élan.
While The Dream was the crowd pleaser, Symphonic Variations was, for me, the most satisfying ballet in which to see, as if through a magnifying glass, Ashton’s intricacy, purity of line and épaulement, all very clear with only six dancers on the stage throughout the ballet.
Sophie Fedorovitch’s backcloth of yellow/green lines and swirls, newly painted in London, seemed to expand the depth and width to the notoriously not-big-enough stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.
Robyn Hendricks was the pivotal figure in Symphonic Variations, not only because of her central position on stage but also because she epitomised the grandeur and solemnity of the ballet. Hendricks, a soloist, and the principals, Amber Scott and Ako Kondo, looked magnificent in the white tunics that have stood the test of time with their elegance and simplicity.
Symphonic Variations is serene on the outside but as busy as a knitting machine on the inside. Those Greek sculpture poses, with one foot placed elegantly over the other, offer little respite from the fast footwork, changes of direction and turns, in which the eyes look upwards rather than focussing at a spot.
The casting of the ballet, and the entire Ashton program, was interesting. Several dancers from the lower ranks were given the opportunity to dance on opening night. This may be because the stagers cast the ballets and the company’s artistic staff did not interfere in their choices. For the dancers the chance to shine must have been both exciting but intimidating, especially in a work such as Symphonic Variations that demands exactitude and finesse.
The men were secure as they danced alone, especially Brett Chynoweth who flew so high in his jetes that he seemed to be aiming for a personal best, but in their partnering there was sometimes a tentative approach, perhaps due to the challenge of dancing in one of the most demanding ballets in the repertoire on opening night.
Ashton’s choreography has been described as depicting the lustre of a pearl rather than the brilliance of diamonds, and the three dancers in Monotones II, wearing white bodysuits encircled with sparkly belts exemplified the iridescence of a pearl, but for me, those odd bathing-cap headpieces are distracting rather than enhancing.
Natasha Kusen was well cast as the goddess-like centrepiece, lifted, turned this way and that, and upside down by the men (Brett Simon and Jared Wright). Kusen has both the beautiful feet and a stunning arabesque that the choreography demands. It’s been said that the ballet was inspired by space travel, but Kusen’s languorous back bends with her arms held in open fourth looked more like a flower opening to a full blown blossom rather than an astronaut defying gravity.
After the white abstraction of Symphonic Variations and Monotones II came The Dream, all prettiness and playfulness, focussing on the yes-no romance of Oberon and Titania. Madeleine Eastoe excels in Romantic roles such as Giselle and La Sylphide but her depiction of Titania was as feisty as it was delicate and fragile. In The Dream, romanticism becomes eroticism when Titania is swung in the arms of Oberon, (Kevin Jackson) in their final pas de deux.
Ashton’s comic characters were many but perhaps none are as lovable as Bottom dressed as an ass complete with a donkey head and pointe shoes. Corps de ballet dancer, Joseph Chapman, was delightful as he trotted and hopped in his shoe-hooves. The corps de ballet of fairies was well coached by Carr and the lovers, Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander (Kusen, Hendricks, Jacob Sofer and Rudy Hawkes) were charming as they found their way to emerge from confusion to a happy conclusion.
The word “charming” just about sums up The Dream, a ballet that has the essence of a pastoral painting by Gainsborough. But in the midst of all the jokes, lovemaking and misadventures Puck is the far-from-still centre of the turning world, and I’ve seen no better Puck than Chengwu Guo, whose elevation and turns are extraordinary. Guo’s natural habitat appears to be in the air. His jumps are a work of art in themselves. How Ashton would have loved his performance.