A New Era. The Australian Ballet in 2021

Ever since the announcement that David Hallberg was to become the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, there has been speculation about what he might bring to the company. With his extraordinary background across the world, including extended periods as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as guest seasons with major companies around the world, including an extended position as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, it has seemed obvious that he would have much to offer. His contacts, and his wide personal experience, would ensure that he would be able to bring a diverse repertoire of works to the Australian Ballet. The announcement of the Australian Ballet’s season for 2021 shows exactly that.

David Hallberg, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The season is made up of a gala opening program in Melbourne, two mixed bill programs and three full-length works. Sound familiar? Looking more closely, however, the individual content of each season might be seen as somewhat unexpected. The opening season for Sydney dance goers is New York Dialects. It consists of two works by George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, which show somewhat different aspects of Balanchine’s output; and a newly commissioned work from Pam Tanowitz. Who could not look forward to Balanchine? But I am curious to see what Tanowitz produces as the one work of hers that I have seen (Solo for Russell for a New York City Ballet streaming program) left me cold I have to say.

The other mixed bill has two vastly different works both based on the balletic vocabulary—Petipa’s third act from Raymonda and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. I had the pleasure once of seeing the full-length Artifact but have never seen the Suite that Forsythe created from the full-length version. I look forward to the Suite and I am sure it will contain all the startling aspects (blackouts, lowering of the front curtain in mid-performance, and so on) that characterise the full production. An interesting choice from Hallberg.

As for the full-length works, we will get to see (I hope, anyway) Anna Karenina with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose choreography I admire immensely; John Cranko’s familiar Romeo and Juliet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of the long-lost Harlequinade, originally created by Petipa in 1900.

Robyn Hendricks in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

What has impressed me so far is the way Hallberg speaks about the repertoire for the 2021 season. His words are straightforward and clear but they don’t dumb things down at all. His discussion of the Counterpointe program, for example, he says

The juxtaposition of Raymonda and Artifact Suite shows the evolution of classical ballet. Raymonda adheres to tradition and pageantry; Forsythe took this history and ‘imitated’ it, creating a work that overwhelms both dancers and audience with gestural references given new meaning. These seminal works both counteract and perfectly complement each other.

It has also been interesting rereading his autobiography A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back (New York: Atria Paperback, 2017). Now he is the new artistic director, the sections in his book where he talks about seeking to understand more about the nature of ballet take on a new meaning. During the reread I especially admired his enquiring mind, and his interest in an analytical approach to certain aspects of his career.

Hallberg has good connections already with the Australian Ballet as a result of guesting with the company on various occasions, and from the extended time he spent in Melbourne being treated for injury by the company’s rehabilitation team. He is an exceptional dancer (oh those beats!) and I clearly recall the first time I saw him in 2010 in Kings of the Dance. ‘Hallberg danced with classical perfection,’ I wrote. But despite all the positive signs, he has to prove that he can direct a company successfully. A new era? Fingers crossed.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured Image: Brett Chynoweth in a study for Harlequinade. Photo: © Pierre Toussaint

New Works Festival. New York City Ballet

New York City Ballet’s recent digital offering was a remarkable collection of five short films by five different choreographers, filmed mostly around the Lincoln Center area. The films brought to the fore some fascinating issues about dance, about dance for film, and, during the discussion that followed each of the works, about how dancers are managing the pandemic facing us all. They also contained some personal reminders of that area and I could almost see, on one occasion, the apartment block where I lived on West 62nd Street while working at Lincoln Center. But, to the dance!

The reflecting pool that sits centre stage in the Plaza was used in a major way by two of the choreographers. Water Rite, a solo dance, was choreographed by Jamar Roberts from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre where he is a dancer and resident choreographer, and was performed by NYCB corps de ballet dancer, Victor Abreu. It was interesting to watch how the Henry Moore sculpture, an essential component of the pool, was deployed as part of the choreography. At times it formed a kind of frame for Abreu’s dancing, on other occasions it was a backdrop, and occasionally it was like a stationary prop. Choreographically the dance was full of energy with a lot of turning, which of course threw up the water.

But the big surprise came at the very end. As Abreu slowed down and it seemed like the end had arrived, suddenly we saw a long shot of the pool with Abreu and the sculpture in the centre and with six musicians and their instruments —two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass and a flute—spread out in the pool. Yes, the sextet of musicians who had accompanied the dancer with Inflatedbyspinning by composer Ambrose Akinmusire, were standing in the pool too. A great ending.

The other work that used the pool in a major way was new song choreographed by Andrea Miller, founder of the Brooklyn-based company Gallim. It was performed by four dancers to Manifiesto by Chilean composer Victor Jara. The very dance-able folkloric feel to the music was taken up beautifully by Miller and especially well danced by all four dancers, but especially by Unity Phelan. She opened the dancing with a solo around a sculpture by Alexander Calder, which is situated just at the entrance to the Library for the Performing Arts. As with Water Rite, the sculpture became an integral element in the opening part of the dance. Phelan was soon joined by three other dancers and eventually they transitioned into the pool to dance with the Henry Moore sculpture where their glorious freedom of movement continued.

New song was my favourite of the five works and I loved the discussion afterwards in which Phelan talked about letting the water inform the movement.

Justin Peck’s work Thank you, New York, involved four dancers who appeared in four separate locations around New York—a deserted street, a terminal building, a rooftop and a park overlooking the river. Its focus moved back and forth between venues and its choreography was exceptionally varied with lots of turning steps, which featured strongly in the closing moments of the piece.

The most interesting aspect of Sidra Bell’s work Pixelation in a wave (within wires) was the comment about the inspiration behind the work: ‘The exquisitely tenuous correspondence between structural and human forms.’ It too took place around the Lincoln Center Plaza but choreographically it did not have the excitement of the works by Peck, Miller and Roberts. As for Pam Tanowitz’s Solo for Russell, for my liking it was too static and involved a lot of posing rather than moving.

Below is an image of the pool and the sculpture in Lincoln Center Plaza taken on a very wet, cold day in March 2011. How beautiful it was to see the site being brought to life by dance in 2020.

Michelle Potter, 8 November 2020

Featured image: Victor Abreu in a moment from Jamar Roberts’ Water Rite. Screenshot, New York City Ballet, 2020