After a year of lockdowns no one expected The Australian Ballet would return to the stage this year. After all, it’s been a year of cancellations with the company announcing the show would not go on “due to venue closures as part of the efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19”.
Instead the company is back on the stage finishing the year with a pop up gala at first in Sydney and then Melbourne. Titled Celebration Gala it neatly bookends the company’s Summertime at the Ballet gala early this year.
A gala is a natural fit for David Hallberg, the Australian Ballet’s artistic director. He is, after all, a previous star of the gala circuits and he understands the power of a gala chock full of ballet stars from around the world.
Celebration Gala is not a red-carpet event with super stars on the stage but instead, a well curated showcase of The Australian Ballet’s principal artists, senior artists and soloists dancing in 10 different pas de deux.
There were no sets in the Joan Sutherland Theatre but when the curtain opened there was no need to look anywhere else on the stage as all eyes were fixed on Chengwu Guo, who jumped onto the stage like a panther in La Favorita. This grand pas and showcase was first created for David McAllister and Elizabeth Toohey by Petal Miller-Ashmole.
The gala moved on to Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s mesmerising pas de deux in Concerto. With her exquisite technique on display Robyn Hendricks was well supported by Callum Linnane as she moved like a dancer warming up with Linnane as her (virtual) barre.
The first contemporary work was Clay, an excerpt from Logos, a ballet about armouring ourselves from predators, pressures and at times, ourselves. Co-commissioned by Alice Topp and Wayne McGregor, the pas deux was danced by Nathan Brook and Karen Nanasca.
Topp is the last resident choreographer who has remained in The Australian Ballet since Hallberg became the artistic director. Previously there were four resident choreographers including Topp.
While Hallberg has plans to add new resident choreographers Topp will remain as a resident choreographer and is also co-founder and creative director of Project Animo, that will bring together recently retired dancers and independent artists who have worked with major companies including The Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre, and Wayne McGregor’s UK studio.
Apart from Robyn Hendricks, there was only one Australian Ballet female principal in the gala, Benedicte Bemet. She was partnered by Brett Chynoweth in the Black Swan Lake pas de deux and by Chengwu Guo in Peter Wright’s Act II pas de deux from the The Nutcracker.
The gala included five more pas de deux, the White Swan Lake, (Rina Nemeto and Jarryd Madden), Anna Karenina, (Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane), Chroma, (Imogen Chapman and Cristiano Martino), The Merry Widow, (Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and Sharni Spencer) and After the Rain, (Rina Nemoto and Nathan Brook).
While After the Rain, first described as a pas de deux of air and earth and a love duet full of intimate gestures is unforgettable, the pas de deux from Act II of Anna Karenina was the most interesting gala moment, perhaps because I’ve been lucky to interview Tom Pye the ballet’s designer.
His answers covered his choices of all the vivid colours for the costumes and, as well, why he decided to add some Film noir moments “to focus heavily on the characters and their internal dramas”.
Pye could easily write a book about his Anna Karenina research that including his interest in the colour research palette of 19th century portraits in Russia, his visits to numerous museums among them the Fashion Museum in Bath and his attention to details, not only for the costumes but also the jewellery and headwear, including fur, straw and veiled hats.
After watching the Anna Karenina pas de deux in Celebration Gala I can hardly wait to see the full-length ballet either in Melbourne or Sydney next year.