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REVIEW: Vanguard | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

The Australian Ballet’s Vanguard showcases works from George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor. And two great performances out of three ‘aint bad.

The cast of Vanguard | Joan Sutherland Theatre (Pic: Branco Gaica)

There was no dilemma in foregoing the tap-dancing of the federal treasurer’s budget speech for Vanguard, which proves to be a fitting name for The Australian Ballet’s latest, as it spearheads new movements in dance and new directions for the company.

When I say new, the first of the three works presented — George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments — harks back to 1946, but still glistens with a fresh modernity. This, despite humble origins: its premiere was at the Central High School of Needle Trades, of New York City, on November 20 of that year, with music commissioned from Paul Hindemith. (Hindemith had, in fact, written a score of the same name six years earlier, for string orchestra and piano.)

The premiere was performed in practice clothes and sans scenery, so artistic director David McAllister has chosen to stay true to this spirit and provenance, opting for a visual minimalism (a parabolic curvature of luminous blue behind the dancers) that echoes the ballet’s elegant, assertive, choreographic simplicity. For mine, this work, physically, is all about attitude, posture, deportment and carriage. Balanchine was experimenting with such long before voguing. Thematically, Balanchine (and, before him, Hindemith) draws upon the ancient Greek notion of temperaments, or humours; something we might now call moods and dissociate from the bodily fluids the Greeks correlated.

With this work as much as any other from his canon, Balanchine demonstrates how and why he rose to be co-founder and ballet master of the New York City Ballet and one of the most gifted and influential artists of all time. The music is arranged into three themes and four variations and the dance follows suit. Distinctions of energy and mood are rendered with precision, clarity and all-round excellence and it’s capricious and arbitrary in the extreme to pick favourites but, if pressed, I might opt for the opening ‘movement’ which brings Amy Harris and Andrew Killian together.

The beauty of this piece (or these pieces) is it can be appreciated as visual and performance art, but also as a work of philosophy: the Greeks’ notion of keeping emotions in balance and legitimising the full range of such surely holds no less wisdom today. By George, it’s fine work! As I write, it’s been presented 87 times by The AB and I’m hoping for at least another 87 before I kick the bucket.

As usual, I can’t let an AB review go by without making mention of the versatile, collective genius of Nicolette Fraillon and The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Nothing seems too much of a challenge for them and this night certainly presented what must be considered exceedingly challenging music. Indeed, the orchestra and soloists faced degrees of difficulty not too far removed from those confronted and surmounted by the dancers. Hindemith’s score, for example, was impeccably rich, with its strings by turns melancholic, peacefully pastoral and wildly optimistic. Stuart Macklin’s piano exhibited a faithfully confounding balance between attack and delicacy, too.

It was an inspirational moment in Sydney’s artistic life, appropriately celebrated with a glass of sparkling wine at interval, before returning for Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura which, if anything and if at all possible, upped the ante. It certainly proved, literally and figuratively, for me, the centrepiece of an incredibly robust and refined program: robust in selection; refined in execution.

Kylian’s work, from 1995, is as much about production design as choreography. Almost. He uses curtains to great effect, framing scenes and dancers like Renaissance artworks. Kees Tjebbes lighting only but adds. Joke Visser’s costume design is exquisite, not least his fantastically overstated scarlet pantaloons. The work moves deviously and mischievously from the sublime to the ridiculous, a transition flagged first, on my reading, by a female foot appearing ‘tween and ‘twixt a male dancer’s legs (I can’t quite recall whose).

The dance is to many a tune, from Lukas Foss’ Salomon Rossie Suite to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Foss’ Lento is incredibly moving and this is part of what deludes us as to the character of the work. In practice, Kylian traverses as many humours as Balanchine, as well as the laugh-out-loud kind. If you admire Chaplin, I expect you’ll revel in what Kylian does here. But, like a deft film or theatremaker, he has the dexterity to transport us, from laughter; to tears, likely of jouissance.

Again, it’s practically impossible to single out performances. There’s plenty to go awry, what with controlled slides and physical missions impossible for the merely mortal, yet nothing does. A no added cost bonus are the voices of Janet Todd, Celeste Lazarenko and Margaret Trubiano, which take the whole work heavenward.

I only wish I could as enthusiastic about Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, from (confusingly) 2009. At first glance, it’s striking, for its itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini stage garb. Aurally, too, Steve Reich’s Double Sextet is an awakening departure; ‘though even this becomes a little irritating, as the dance seems to go nowhere discernible: thematically, narratively, dramatically, or emotionally. Worse, given the lucidity, intelligence, wit, innovations (Kylian takes vocabularies from myriad forms of modern dance, boldly reapplying such in anachronistic classical contexts) and aesthetic transcendence of the first two works, it comes across as dense, directionless and, dare I say, a little ugly.

But even this couldn’t dampen, let alone dilute, an otherwise sparkling evening of ballet.

The details: Vanguard plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 18. The show plays Melbourne’s State Theatre June 6-17 — tickets on the company website.

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