REVIEW: English National Ballet | The Concourse, Sydney
The opening was on the Saturday night of the Queen’s birthday long weekend. Not that I had QE2 in mind when I attended. Selfish of me. After all, it was the poor, old dear’s diamond jubilee. In fact, this gala season at The Concourse’s Performing Arts Centre was in honour of such.
But I wasn’t allowed to forget it was Liz’ birthday. Firstly, I was astonished to hear the strains of Advance Australia Fair rising in the auditorium. I can’t remember the last time I was importuned to stand for the confounded song. Oh, that’s right. Anzac Day, probably. Dawn ceremony. But it’s not a regular thing. It might’ve been at the behest of Willoughby’s self-aggrandising mayor (who shall remain nameless, as he doesn’t need any more publicity). I don’t know.
Our national anthem is one thing. Tedious enough. But when was the last time you were implored to stand for God Save The Queen? Exactly. You can’t remember. Probably childhood. Unless you’ve been knighted recently. And here I was, with my republican leanings, on my feet, while my partner steadfastly refused to be upstanding. “C’mon. It’s her birthday!” I feebly intoned, abandoning, in that moment (or so it felt) all my political principles. Well, one of ’em. Besides, politicians do it every day, don’t they?
Every man and woman with a north shore Holden in the garage must’ve been there, dressed to the nines; if not tens. They made an opening night opera audience (and me, leather-jacketed) look like a bunch of dishevelled dags. Bob ‘n’ Blanche; Maria Venuti; Jane Rutter. They were all there. Yes, Chatswood has, apparently, become Sydney’s Hollywood overnight.
Happily, I soon overcame my sartorial shame and lost myself in the performing art on offer. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t go out of my way for the English National Ballet, when we’ve the Australian Ballet on our doorstep. That might smack, on the surface, of pitiable parochialism, but it’s nothing of the kind: despite the ENB being (justifiably) touted as one of the world’s great companies, I perceive no lacking, in any department, between the mother country and her convict cousin.
Of course, ballet isn’t a sport. It isn’t about competition, I suppose, but complementarity. It’s not state of origin. Nonetheless, with an ensemble so highly-reputed, one would be disingenuous to pretend not to make such assessments, however close-to-the-chest and privately kept they might otherwise be. And, come to think of it, World Championship Ballet, a kind of So You Think You Can Danse?, isn’t altogether ridiculous. Crass, perhaps; beyond the traditional pale. But not altogether ridiculous. Imagine the thrall of an international dance-off, between the Kirov and Bolshoi, or Royal verses Paris Opera?
George Balanchine’s Apollo would be worth the price of admission, almost regardless of the price of admission, on its own. It is notable for its simplicity, narrative clarity and, as much as anything, iconic stature, being Balanchine’s oldest surviving ballet (1928). It also signified the start of a very beautiful relationship between Balanchine and Stravinsky, who was commissioned to compose the work by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a pianist and wealthy heiress who became an important American arts patron.
The work encapsulates and epitomises the neoclassical style for which Balanchine became renowned and which he veritably owned. (With apologies to Ashton and MacMillan) Balanchine was neoclassical. Neoclassical was Balanchine. Without this response to modernism and its interpolation into classicism, it’s reasonable to say the New York City Ballet wouldn’t be what it is today, since that company has proved a disciple of Balanchine’s innovations.
The ENB has certainly embraced the pared-back approach which was part-and-parcel of this derivative of the 19th-century Russian imperial school, inasmuch as there are no fancypants cossies (Omo-white is de rigour) and the only semblance of a set is a starkly black metal stair. This leaves making an impression to the dance. And dancers. Both not only succeed, but exceed. Principal, Vadim Muntagirov, looks like he was born to dance this role which, for all its modernity in terms of theatrical spareness, demands en pointe precision in the highest and an ‘unbearable lightness of being’. He’s man of the moment in the ballet world because of his twinkle-toed agility, grace and elegant line. He’s long, lean and squeaky-clean in execution. As Apollo, he’s the quintessential incarnation of the ideal of the kouros, the smooth-skinned, athletic youth and shines as brightly as the sun over which, among other things, his character is deemed to prevail.
Joining Apollo on Mount Olympus are three of the nine muses: Calliope, goddess of poetry, is danced by Adela Ramirez; Terpsichore, muse of dance, by Daria Klimentova; Polyhymnia, herein assigned mime, by Anais Chalendard. Apollo honours his muses with emblematic gifts: Calliope, a writing tablet (in the rarefied, all-white atmosphere atop Greece’s highest peak, it struck me an iPad would’ve made for a cheeky variation); Poly, a mask; Terpsichore, a lyre. Apollo is then in relative repose while the muses try and impress him, as if according to some prescribed tribal ritual. Calliope’s eloquence is shorty shown to fail the test; Ramirez is afforded a brief, succinct solo, in which she communicates her ardent desire to please, presenting Apollo with her scratchings.
The balance of power in the relationship is palpable and this is one of the strengths, challenges, risks and charms of the work: powerful drama and great theatre is almost wholly and solely contingent on music and choreography, as well as the company’s capacity to realise Stravinsky and Balanchine’s majestic intentions. Majestic but, at the same time, Balanchine is determined to explore the profane as well as godly qualities of these mythological characters; their foibles, as well as fantastical potencies.
The miracle of Balanchine’s Apollo is that, at 84 years of age, it still looks fresh, vital, sleek and modern; a low-slung coupe, slinking around amid staid sedans. Much of its beauty, apart from the sheer sprightliness of its pointe shoe uprightness which seems to echo the supposed rectitude of the ‘players’, lies in Balanchine’s fastidious attention to aesthetic detail: expressive, flexed fingers (including the famous homage to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling mural), inverted penches and, above all, superb symmetry and geometrical figures.
In ballet terms, it’s an Olympian feat.
Chalendard’s solo is almost seductive, but, as Poly, try as she might, she can’t seem to corrupt the susceptibly young Apollo. And so it’s left to Terps. Klimentova complements Muntagirov as if born to dance with him. The adagio pas de deux is the fix and focus here and the dancers look truly as if they could be floating on air, or clouds (notwithstanding the reverberant transmissions of their landings from the stage which, in that sense, seems a little poorly-designed for dance).
Before we leave Apollo, let’s not forget to honour Igor’s music; with its baroque touches, a serene and sublime reinvention of 18th-century music, in the early 20th. Doing it immense justice, the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, guest conducted by Nigel Gaynor, who confirmed his reputation for sympathetically-phrased music.
Much of the rest of the programme comes under the banner of Celebrations and is comprised of a ‘greatest hits’ selection of pas de deux.
For all its celebrated status, the bald truth is I find MacMillan’s Manon (the bedroom scene, from act one, of three), set to Massenet’s re-orchestrated music, twee. Unlike what I take to be Balanchine’s sincere and diligent interrogation of the earthly versus godly in Apollo and the ennoblement of physical interaction born of the simpatico between Apollo and Terpsichore, MacMillan’s Manon paints an idealised picture of romantic love that smacks of the worst poetic or cinematic excesses. It is, for mine, quite cloyingly adolescent in tone.
Which isn’t to say the man’s choreography is anything much short of purely glorious, sweeping, swooping and swooning; fluid and ebullient, with dizzyingly lovely turns and lifts. And, again, artistic director Wayne Eagling has paired precisely the right dancers, in Elena Glurdjidze and Arionel Vargas.
Petipa’s recapitulated, so-called Black Swan duet, from the 1895 restaging of Swan Lake is, of course, brilliant and gets right to the heart of classical ballet. Even Balanchine was in awe of Petipa, who still presides over ballet like no other choreographer. Purists have complained that much of what’s passed-off as this grand pas de deux in contemporary times bears little resemblance to Petipa’s vision. No such risk here, I reckon.
Given the story on which Swan Lake is based harks back to the middle ages there needs to be a sense of chivalry and this is evident in Siegfried’s deferential enchantment by the devious Odile. This, of course, makes him look all the more deceived and inadvertently foolish which, it seems to me, is the very irony that needs to be present to give Petipa his full due.
Peter Farmer’s design is superlative. Senior principal Klimentova again joins Muntagirov in a stunning portrayal of evil in action (even if it’s no worse, really, than arena standing-in for Samantha, duping Darren), set against an unrelentingly red background. Speaking of red, Muntagirov has, seemingly, as much jets as a big red ‘roo, if considerably more grace. His form is flawless and, from Klimentova, there’s the almost circus-like thrill of no less than 32 (I lost count) fouettees (what I think of as ‘whip-turns’; mind you, fouettee has a pleasing ‘Franconomatopeia’ about it).
With the prospect of Serge Lifar’s Suite En Blanc still to come, after second interval, it was not MacMillan, or Balanchine, or even Petipa which really stole my breath, but the ‘Mondrian of dance’, Hans Van Manen’s Trois Gnosiennes. Mondrian is right. Van Manen’s lines are stark, hard and uncompromising. There is even a kind of violence about them, albeit informed by passion, as the protagonists negotiate the balance of power in their relationship. It is riveting and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in dance; ballet in particular. Adela Ramirez and Fabian Reimair acquit themselves with an excellence (not merely technical, but expressive and theatrical) that meets and even exceeds the challenge before them. Meanwhile, Erik Satie’s music haunting and poignant music is like a vista to Hanging Rock, or the mysterious territory of human intimacy.
Lifar’s contribution was specifically designed as a show-off piece for dancers. It was the icing on the cake, ornamental, indulgent and gorgeous; a visual banquet which could be appreciated by ballet novices or cognoscenti alike and render both, at times, near-euphoric.
The minimalistic attitude brought to the ENB’s first (Sydney only) tour for over a decade brought a refreshing singlemindedness; a boldness that threw the onus onto choreography and performers. Neither, on the whole, fell short of fabulous.
Mmm. Maybe I would go out of my way for the ENB. Perhaps even Chatswood isn’t too far.
The details: The English National Ballet played The Concourse at Chatswood from June 8-17.