An Australian Gala

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The Australian Ballet Gala
November 1, 2012

There must be whooping. Lots of it. An abundance of whooping, cheering, hooting, and thunderous applause. This is what celebrations need in order to make them celebrations. And to make a performance a gala event: so it was for the Australian Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Gala, which I had the fortune of seeing twice.

The cast for both performances was chiefly the same, with the exception of the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, performed on Thursday, 1 November by Ty King-Wall and Leanne Stojmenov and the following night by Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones. “Études” was danced on Thursday by Madeleine Eastoe, Yosvani Ramos, Chengwu Guo, Andrew Killian and on Friday by Lucinda Dunn, Rachel Rawlins, Lana Jones, Madeleine Eastoe, Ty King-Wall, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes. Friday night was recorded and broadcast live at Federation Square in Melbourne and Martin Place in Sydney where you could watch the performance free underneath the starry canopy.

What amazement, the human body: capable of performing all manner of artistry and athleticism, capable of the illusion of weightlessness as it sails through the air, capable of wooing and beguiling its audience, of such tantalisation. The anniversary gala, which included a host of international guest artists, was a giddy showcase of the balletic body: fouetté, jeté, pas de bourree, pirouette. Ballet’s lexicon was shown to brilliant extreme in this jewel box array from “Giselle,” “Carmen Suite,” “Manon,” and Tchaikovsky’s White Swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake” and the finale, Harald Lander’s “Études.”

It is a language to be read on the bodies of dancers. It is a conversation we are cognisant of between the dancers themselves, in the aching intimacy of Demis Volpi’s “Little Monsters” in love and the sigh-inducing partnering in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Equally, it is a conversation between dancer and audience. You do not need to know the terms nor the history (though this helps, and many, of course, do) for it is a language that cuts across this. There is a directness, a clarity to the movements we all understand. Longing, love, elation, exuberance. This is something we can read no matter our background. It is a story told yesterday; it is a story told today. It is timeless, and Love and Loss and Joy prove unfailing guides. They whisper, they coax, and they play. They tell a story orchestrated to reach into one’s very chest and grab at the heart. They must know that they pull long golden ropes from inside the fleshy trunks of all seated in the theatre. Pulling at heartstrings—this is the stuff to make your forearms prickle. Goosebumps! These physical sensations, all part of the thrill. Not merely a heady experience, this ride is for the body too.

The dancers, those beautiful alien creatures, seem to be carved from something else, the result of years of training and dedication and the endless pursuit of excellence. Some, like the Tokyo Ballet’s Mizuka Ueno give impression of being a towel wrung such were the twists she performed in Alberto Alonso’s Love pas de deux from “Carmen Suite.” Where the body’s organs go is anyone’s guess. Amber Scott’s delicate backbend into a bridge supported by not the palm but the back of each hand, in “After the Rain,” had my mum, a yoga teacher, in complete awe. So too, did the ethereal qualities and liquid moves of Zhu Yan and Sun Ruichen from National Ballet of China in their “Giselle” dreamscape on stage.

For as long as the body is relevant in our society, ballet, dance, non verbal forms of communication have a unique role in the communication of ideas. Ballet is relevant because it still has the capacities to move, challenge, excite, inspire, provoke, our human sensibilities in ways no other art form can.[i]

—Wayne McGregor, choreographer, the Royal Ballet

From the opening “Overture,” this honey-laced trap calls for endurance. What is it common folklore says about being mindful not to step inside a fairy ring of toadstools lest you have to dance for eternity? Something of this rings true for me in this lineup that asks its audience to come along for the fast-paced journey, only our limbs are not as fluid moving and capable as those of the dancers and I find I’m limping by the time we reach the White Swan pas de deux. Thrown into the middle of “the best bits” cannot make for anything other than one super endurance test that sees us plucked from Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and plunged into Giselle’s realm, another landscape to navigate and footing to quickly find.

And so it continues, springing from bedroom (“Manon”) to another story altogether before things culminate in the Wedding pas de deux (“Don Quixote”). Add to this, all those elements which ensure a company can present such a spectacle polished for the audience to lap up like the bug-eyed child in a sweet factory. Costumes, lighting, teaching, direction; this tight mesh that is the performing arts, to an outsider from the visual arts, reads like a dream.

I don’t experience it as me standing behind the girl looking at the back of her head, with my hands on her waist. I’m feeling what’s going on inside her body. And what two people can execute and create is a lot more than one person can alone… Letting go and trusting yourself and your natural reflexes and instincts. It’s shedding and taking away all the technical expectations and being sincere with yourself. That’s what comes out of it for me.[ii]

—Damian Smith, Principal Dancer, San Francisco Ballet

“Manon,” danced by Australian Ballet principal Adam Bull and guest Julie Kent, principal with American Ballet Theatreand After the Rain danced by Australian Ballet principal Amber Scott and guest Damian Smith, principal with San Francisco Ballet, the latter in particular, draw for me what love is. In Little Monsters (created especially for Stuttgart Ballet’s Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo), we see that arms can be made to arc that of a bird of prey. A mighty wingspan that is as beautiful as it is controlled. And when again to the stage the Little Monsters duo take, they bring with them their obvious enjoyment, and assured familiarity to Don Quixote. They love the audience and the audience, naturally, loves them. Hearing feet upon the stage floor, the smell of hairspray (or am I imagining I can smell this from where I sit?), the snap of fingers clicking, the clack of a fan opening, all the little nuances peculiar to a live performance run through me.

Beginning with one dancer’s plie, in Lander’s Études beautiful repetition is used as exquisite pattern to describe to the audience the work of a dancer. This is groundwork: the barre, the training, the repetition of steps. And so, after an early part of the evening spent atop mountain’s peak, we are now presented with a work to read from start to finish. We get to revel in the now seemingly slow assent; the steady build to bang that is Études.

Dancers’ legs are spot lit and shown at the barre as though in class. At one point, the line of dancers look almost like a centipede with its many legs all moving in the one direction, all part of the one body. We see, too, the figure used as inventive silhouette play with the dancers lit so as to become almost from black paper cut. This work is one to delight in, with its chorographical challenges clear. It is, in the vein of the previous highlights, a work for a dancer to open their bag of tricks much like a magician and say, you like that? Well, look, look at what it is I can do now—and the audience lap it up eagerly, feeling truly part of a 50th knees-up.

This is play. This is evident in many parts of Études. Dancers taking delight in the things that they can make their bodies do. This is emphatically the feeling I come away with after the curtain call with its flowers, and fireworks on stage, in literal sense, a crowd enraptured and applauding so enthusiastically I’m sure my ears were splitting. How I love this audience for showing its admiration and love for the company, its work and all it stands for. This is how a 50th milestone should be marked.

Crossing the bridge in the direction of home, I stopped at Federation Square to catch the tail end of the performance I had just seen live. It was a good ending to see the crowd assembled on a chilly spring eve, watching the screen. To see a small child preforming its own interpretive solo before those seated. To see people dressed in their work clothes tucking into sushi or sipping lemonade as they looked up at the big screen, transfixed. Once more, the fireworks, the ‘50’ projected on the backcloth. The company on stage, those champions of Australian dance, saying thank-you, from artistic director David McAllister and music director Nicolette Fraillon, to former artistic director Maina Gielgud, former principal dancer and director of the Australian Ballet School Marilyn Rowe, and the founder of the Australian Ballet School Dame Margaret Scott. From here, I float home, head wrapped in gauze, nostrils still detecting the smell of hairspray.

 


[i] Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, in interview with dance writer Brendan McCarthy in 2006, quoted by Valerie Lawson, arts writer for the Sydney Morning Herald in her piece for the Manon programme of the Australian Ballet, 2008.

[ii] Damian Smith in interview, “Chance even sparks a leap of faith,” Philippa Hawker, the Age, 30 October 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/dance/chance-event-sparks-a-leap-of-faith-20121029-28fgq.html

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