The conductor raised the baton, Orchestra Victoria played Minkus’s score for The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère and 24 corps de ballet dancers in The Australian Ballet stepped one by one onto the stage, each showing their strength even though they hadn’t performed before an audience since almost a year.
The critic, Arlene Croce, once wrote, The Kingdom of the Shades is “Elysian bliss, and its subject is eternity, a poem about dancing and memory and time”. Watching the Shades form a serpentine line then the arrival of the principals, Amy Harris as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor, the Melbourne audience may well have felt that moment of bliss. At last, The Australian Ballet had returned to the stage.
Well, not quite a stage but the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne, recently the venue for the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament and five days later The Australian Ballet’s venue for a short season of a gala, titled Summertime at the Ballet, the first show in the company’s 2021 repertoire.
The company’s new artistic director, David Hallberg, who staged The Kingdom of the Shades in Melbourne and previously danced the leading role of Solor in La Bayadère made a good choice to begin the gala with The Kingdom of the Shades even though it might have been a challenge for both the dancers and the conductor, Nicolette Fraillon.
Jon Buswell’s lighting design added glamour to the gala but there were no sets, no curtains and, unlike the usual entrance of the Shades through the wings, the dancers had to step straight onto stage.
Fraillon faced the orchestra at the back of the arena and not in a pit where she could watch the dancers on the stage. Despite the challenges all went well on 26 February, the opening night.
After the Shades the gala continued with excerpts from Australian Ballet’s resident choreographers, two excerpts from the company’s repertoire, Nureyev’s Don Quixote and Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow and two Balanchine’s ballets, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and Theme and Variations.
At least three of the ballets in the gala were well known by Hallberg, the aforementioned Solor in La Bayadere and the leading roles in both Tchaikovsky pas de deux and Theme and Variations. Sandra Jennings, a repetiteur in the Balanchine Trust, travelled to Australia to work with the dancers on both the Tschaikovsy and Theme and Variations.
After the calm beauty of white tutus and pure classical lines the gala showcased contemporary pieces, the first a trio in Filigree and Shadow, choreographed by Tim Harbour. The dancers hurtle though the music motivated by energy and extreme athleticism with the choreography described as “a hurricane of motion”.
The calm returned with Stephen Baynes’s Molto Vivace, a delicate and sometimes funny piece with a romantic pas de deux centrepiece danced in the gala by principals, Amber Scott and Adam Bull to the Largo from Handel’s Xerxes.
Then back to a narrative with Lucas Jervies’s Spartacus choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 2018. Jervies wanted to create a work that relates to the world today, to the slavery in our time and not just the time of the Roman Empire circa 71 BC. After the premiere the audience’s reaction went two ways. Some compared it with the famous Bolshoi version but others, including myself, were interested to see a new Spartacus relating to our own time.
Dancing the role of Spartacus in the gala, the soloist, Jake Mangakahia, was not only powerful as he danced the pas de deux with soloist Imogen Chapman, but also showed his acting skills when he ran across the stage as a man who was trapped and close to death.
Ah! Don Quixote and The Merry Widow, two much loved ballets in The Australian Ballet’s repertoire. Don Q came first with Ako Kondo as Kitri, her husband, Chengwu Guo as Basilio and Dimity Azoury as the lead Bridesmaid.
The audience appeared to enjoy the perfection of the wedding pas de deux’s turns, balances, lifts and fish dives.
After the interval, when we tottered down to the arena’s toilets wearing a mask, the gala continued with The Merry Widow, a signature piece on international tours but it takes a star, in this case Amber Scott, to thrill the audience when she dancers with Camille (Christopher Rodgers-Wilson) and is surrounded by men who can’t take their eyes away from her.
An excerpt from Alice Topp’s ballet, Logos, bookended by two Balanchine ballets, reminded us what an exceptional and moving work it is and one of the last pieces danced by The Australian Ballet before the pandemic forced the theatres to close. Coincidentally it represented the despair of the early lockdowns when we all missed our connections with families and best friends.
Two dancers, Nathan Brook and Karen Nanasca, expressed those feelings as they moved as if they are thinking “I don’t know what to do, but I want you to love me or love me or not”. It might seem soapy but the duet went straight to the heart.
Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, often described as an eight-minute display of ballet bravura and technique, was also one of Hallberg’s leading roles and, while Sandra Jennings, the Balanchine repetiteur was in Australia, Hallberg may have also watched The Australian Ballet’s principal, Robyn Hendricks and the company’s soloist, Callum Linnane, as they rehearsed the pas de deux.
The gala ended with Balanchine’s big hit, Theme and Variations, danced in the gala by the principals Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth. Balanchine told Stravinsky that in his opinion Theme and Variations was “not a first class work” but “appeals to the public”. It’s still a first class work and continues to appeal to the public.
In Australia we now wait for Hallberg’s next production, New York Dialects, that premieres at the Sydney Opera House on 6 April.