‘British Liaisons.’ The Australian Ballet

14 May 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This triple bill program, designed to highlight the strong links between British ballet and the growth of ballet in Australia, produced some moments that were absolute show stoppers.

None of those show stopping moments came, however, in Checkmate. Choreographed in 1937 by Dame Ninette de Valois as a battle between love and death played out on a chessboard, it opened the program. While for the most part it was adequately danced, it lacked any sustained suspense, which pretty much made a mockery of the whole thing. There is no doubt that Checkmate is an old fashioned work, highly stylised in its narrative and choreography. But some stronger characterisation, especially from Lucinda Dunn as the Black Queen, the seductress who ultimately brings about the downfall of the Red King, would have helped to make the work more enticing and anchored it in some kind of reality. Only Amy Harris as the Red Queen made anything of her role, a relatively minor one too, as she ushered in the Red King with kindness and concern. But without any strength of purpose from the other characters, Colin Peasley as the Red King had an uphill battle to make anything of his very important part.

But Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, programmed as the middle piece, made up for the disappointments of Checkmate. The first section was strongly danced by Lana Jones, Amy Harris and Miwako Kubota partnered by Adam Bull, Andrew Killian and Brett Simon respectively. But it was the second section, the seductively beautiful pas de deux danced by Jones and Bull, that was the show stopper. Jones in particular captured the inner calm of this duet— ‘at the still point, there the dance is’ wrote T. S Eliot. Not only was Jones able capture the elusive quality of stillness and repose even as she moved or was moved by her partner, but with each lift one could only gasp at the curving line of her body as it cut through space until it reached the high point of the movement . There  it settled into its final, classically perfect shape. Bull partnered her with care and the tenderness that befits the emotional underpinning of the duet, but nothing could match the star quality of Jones.

Jones appeared again as the leading dancer in the first movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which closed the program. Here she showed another side of her technique, her clear, precise footwork and her ability to turn—especially her ability to turn as she executed a faultless series of chaîné turns across the stage from one downstage corner to the other. She also imbued her dancing in this movement with a beautifully pert quality bringing the audience into her ambit with smiling eyes and a sparkle to her every move. It made me long to see her dance the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies.

Concerto needed, however, a little more precision of technique from the corps de ballet to do justice to MacMillan’s spatial arrangements, which any straggly lines instantly destroy. And they were destroyed on more than one occasion. Juliet Burnett, however, made a strong impression with a beautifully controlled performance in the pas de deux that comprises the second movement. She was partnered by Andrew Killian who almost stole the limelight from her with his deliciously unexpected changes of expression and mood.

Company pianist Stuart Macklin deserves accolades too for his solo piano performances, first in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel to which the pas de deux in After the Rain is performed, and then as soloist in the Shostakovich second piano concerto to which Concerto is danced.

At last, a few moments of excitement from an Australian Ballet performance. Oh that there could be more!

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2011

Kings of the Dance. City Center, New York

19 February 2010, City Center, New York

Christopher Wheeldon’s comment was thought-provoking. In the film sequence that opened Kings of the Dance, Wheeldon remarked that the biggest challenge for choreographers working with the eight exceptional artists performing in this show was managing the different styles in which those dancers had been trained. Of the eight, Jose Manuel Carreño was trained in Cuba, Guilllaume Côté in Canada, David Hallberg and Desmond Richardson in the United States, Marcelo Gomes in South America, Joaquin de Luz in Spain, and Denis Matvienko and Nikolay Tsiskaridze in Russia. Wheeldon continued that it was a particular challenge when the dancers had to dance together in a single work, but noted that it had eventually worked well. In fact, it only worked sometimes.

The highlight of the show for me, as far as works involving more than one dancer were concerned, was Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which comprised Act III of the program. Remanso, a work made for three men in 1997, was performed by Hallberg, Côté, and Gomes on the evening I attended. Duato’s choreography is always distinctive and transcends particular methods of classical training. It allows an individual voice to emerge from the choreography rather than being pasted upon it or sublimated to it. Hallberg, Côté and Gomes responded brilliantly. They brought their undoubted talents to bear to present a thrilling performance that was both amusing and technically absorbing.

This kind of transcendence didn’t happen in Wheeldon’s own work, For 4, that followed the opening film. It was danced by Matvienko, Carreño, de Luz and Côté and, while each danced well, it was not the stylistically coherent piece that Wheeldon was obviously seeking. There were also eight distinct styles on show in the Finale when eight excellent dancers showed off their best tricks—a manège of turns or leaps or a series of grand pirouettes—although coherence was obviously not an aim here.

The middle act consisted of seven solos and one duet. They ranged from the quite cliched work by Igal Perry, Ave Maria, danced by Carreño, to the Mr Universe style of Dwight Roden’s Lament danced by Richardson.

Amongst these solos, however, was the sublimely beautiful short piece made by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell in 1978—Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It began with the dancer, David Hallberg on this occasion, standing on the top of a small platform with a few steps leading down to the stage floor. Hallberg’s body was lit to resemble a piece of sculpture in a gallery and his pose initially clearly recalled Michelangelo’s David. As Hallberg descended the steps and began to dance rather than to pose, the lighting came up to reveal choreography that was simple and yet in no way simplistic. It was an understated display of what constitutes the classical body, how that body moves and how with subtle twists of the arms and turns of the head it can become an innovation. Hallberg danced with classical perfection.

In the end, in a show of this nature it is the choreography that counts. On this occasion it was Ashton and Duato who gave this show its flair.

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2010