It might be the best of British ballet, but it could hardly be a more eclectic, diverse, or divergent selection which, I suppose, bodes well for the breadth of the Anglo-Australian connection, retrospectively and, dare I say, going forward. All are works well-inculcated in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire: 51st, 34th and 74th performances.
Concerto is but one of the works from the late, great, prolific Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreographic folio, staged by Julie Lincoln and drawing upon the sublime Piano Concerto No. 2, opus 102, by Dmitri Shostakovich, with its three distinct movements. Jurgen Rose has kept costume and set design to a stark minimum: simply-cut outfits in bold, block colours from the primary and secondary palettes, with a subdued lime-yellow screen as a backdrop. This serves to throw focus onto the dancers and dance and provides welcome relief from the sensory overload often implicated by the arts, in general, not to mention world-at-large.
Ebullient’s a word that’s been used to describe the first movement and I can’t think of a better one. Macmillan has listened carefully to Shostakovich’s work (while the principals adhere to soloist Duncan Salton’s piano, the corps dances to the orchestra’s tune) and given it the king of jaunty, lively, spring-in-the-step interpretation for which it begs. MacMillan even seems to place his tongue in his cheek with the spritely display, with countless entries, exits and re-entries, akin to butterflies flitting through a spring garden. The principals involved, Reiko Hombo and Tzu-Chao Chou proved to be worthy crowd favourites, at least according to my built-in applausometer and wiggly worm.
But it was the second movement, pas de deux, danced by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian, that caught my imagination and captured my heart. To be honest, the music is so melancholy and romantic it stands completely on it sown merits, so to even attempt to enhance it through physical expression is wildly ambitious. Yet MacMillan manages again to have his dancers take veritable flight, against a solar backdrop, like winged lovers in an ancient myth, or archangels. It is ethereal, idealised and beautifully realised.
The third movement again contrasts sharply and, while the celebrated MacMillan originally devised this work to discipline his charges, in his newly-assumed role as artistic director of West Berlin’s Oper Ballett, in 1966, I find this undoubtedly spectacular choreography to be rather too dense, complex and overwrought, with the supposed symmetry going a little too awry for my less-is-more eye. Having said that, the pace and athleticism involved is utterly breathtaking.
It is interesting that MacMillan’s Concerto was originated hot on the precocious heels of his lauded and outrageously successful Romeo and Juliet, for The Royal Ballet, since the obscenely young high-achiever Christopher Wheeldon is also on the menu, with After The Rain. Wheeldon, on this evidence alone, can hardly be overestimated. Such sensitivity, intensity and originality. There is grace, symmetry, passion and pathos in this work, richly underpinned by two of Arvo Part’s most famous compositions, in Tabula Rasa (Ludus Con Moto, the first movement) and Spiegel Im Spiegel.
Again, there are stark contrasts and counterpoints: while Rose has bathed Macmillan’s Concerto in deep, warm colours, Holly Hynes (costume) and Mark Stanley (lighting) have cooled things right down, with steely greys and blues. Just as the minimalism of Rose’s set and costume serves to lend emphasis to Macmillan’s choreography, the ice-cold palette deployed by Hynes, particularly, proves almost ironic, against the tear-to-the-eye emotional landscape pained by Wheeldon. Perhaps Hynes is sounding a note of warning, of the ever-present threat of estrangement, even where the utmost intimacy is present. Wheeldon’s intent seems to be of a similar ilk to MacMillan’s but, for mine, Wheeldon’s is open heart surgery, as he incises the push-and-pull, the constant tug-of-war that is the reality of relationships, while MacMillan has been content to seduce us with something more fantastical.
In concert with Part’s music, it is heartrending, if not heartbreaking. I’d venture to say it’s one of the most moving works of art, of any kind, I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. All the dancers here are worthy of ovation, especially Lana Jones and Adam Bull, who almost made me weep out loud.
Dame Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate brings composer Sir Arthur Bliss’ chess obsession vividly to life, with spellbindingly futuristic costume and set design (it certainly would’ve been in 1937, when it gobsmacked pretentious Parisians) by E. McKnight Kauffer and complementary lighting design by William Akers. By today’s standards it might be regarded as a rather heavyhanded allegorical statement, this tussle between love and death, imagined through what is most probably the most treacherous of all games of strategy, this side of actual war. It is, for mine, as much operatic and theatrical as strictly balletic; a window into another world of ballet which, thanks to the dedication of the people that populate that realm, shows no signs of being lost, or relegated to museum status or mere curiosity.
On the contrary: the AB continues to imbue this important historical work with vitality, celebrating it as the milestone it is (significant, too, because it reminds us of the interdisciplinary nature of ballet as an artform), along the path hewn, collaboratively, by English and Australian pioneers, like Dame Peggy van Praagh, Dame Margaret Scott, Dame Margot Fonteyne and our own Grande Dame, Robert Helpmann. The sensibility, dramatics and overall aesthetic put me in mind of serious-minded European silent movies; think Fritz Lang. For the sociopoilitically inclined, there are unmistakably prescient references to the horror that was to come, in the form of straight-armed ‘Heil!’ salutes and goosestepping; the Black Queen (Lucinda Dunn) is a merciless Hitler.
Of course, if you genuinely love ballet, all of the above are, in a sense, like children. Picking favourites is, thus, fraught with piercing pangs of guilt, But hang the expense. British Liaisons is worth seeing for Wheeldon’s work alone. The other two are very, very distinguished no-extra-cost bonuses.
The details: British Liaisons is at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Tickets on the venue website.