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Flash Review 1, 2-26: Back to the
Australian Ballet Gala 40th Looks Back and Beyond
By Simone Clifford
Copyright 2002 Simone Clifford
MELBOURNE -- Friday night at the
State Theatre here, The Australian Ballet premiered Beyond 40, an anniversary
gala to celebrate the company's 40-year period of artistic accomplishment. The
atmospherics for the occasion were supported by an air of excitement, genuine
enthusiasm and pride from the company's biggest supporters, its patrons.
This occasion captured TAB's first
four decades and summarized them in one performance, with live highlights from
the repertoire interspersed with filmed interviews. The presentation was carried
off with an innocence and love that comes, I believe, from David McAllister, the
artistic director who now steers this large living vessel. Clearly the focus was
to make this an evening that celebrated all the people who had participated in
the company's evolution, from founder Dame Peggy van Praagh through current company
choreographers like Stephen Page, Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch. Former artistic
director Sir Robert Helpmann was present on film, and former AD Maina Gielgud
made the trip in person. Binding the evening together was Graeme Murphy's 1980
The quality pervading this evening
was parental, like a large family embracing in a cradle of love.
Dance and ballet? These words have
come to define polarized worlds. Yet, they really describe one ultimate essence.
It is what we feel about our souls that makes this activity uniquely magnetic,
drawing us, compelling us to continue on in our search for the ultimate statement
of who we are. No matter how elusive this essence may be, in reality it is what
we are all focused on exploring. It is an inquisitive endeavor that touches the
artist choreographer, performer, audience, ballet master/mistress, lighting, set
and costume designers, and director. All involved do so because dance gives us
an opportunity to be freed from the vulgarities of our world, seeking blissful
moments of rest and beauty. Dance also holds the capacity to contact one's soul
through the use of the body, and I believe it is for all these reasons that the
audience joins with us in support and awe.
Gravity is of the world and this
aspect could be viewed as the single most confrontational issue in dance. The
"moderns" decided to let it work for/ with them, embracing it so that their dances
took on a "groundedness" that acted as a gateway to the earth's persona. Their
souls bound and united in the earth's consciousness. The "classicists" worked
to supercede the effect of gravity, preferring to take us on a journey not of
the earth, but of the Heavenly.
But now we have found that there
exists a new symbiosis, that of contemporary minds working with classicists' heavenly
capabilities. And although it has been in reign for a considerable period of time
throughout the 20th century inside the "ballet world," I see within The Australian
Ballet a natural selection taking place, a coherent use of these combined forces.
It's a statement the company's dancers seem to relish.
For me, this company has on several
occasions looked intensely of this world yet still suitably above it when dancing
the work of the contemporary choreographers. There is a natural chemistry that
takes place within these dancers when they perform works from contemporary choreographers.
In Australia there is a physicality that is quite unlike that of other nationalities
and this can be seen in the earthy power that emanates when Australians move.
Indeed it is the gravity of the moderns, mixed with the air-borne nature of the
classical, that when given opportunity to rise on stage makes this company radiate
its own special brand of uniqueness.
During Friday's program we were given
glimpses into the past, including images of Sir Robert Helpmann in performance
on film, making it apparent that some really gutsy, earthy work has transpired
on the stages The Australian Ballet has graced. It was not at all garlands and
peasant girls and boys. Far from it, it looked positively full to the brink of
gravity graced by the window of the soul made possible when embracing classical
understanding and ability.
Sir Robert and Dame Peggy ran the
company for the first 12 years, for much of the time with Helpmann as associate
director. He continued as artistic director for another two years after van Praagh
departed. In March 1964, he choreographed "The Display," dedicated to Katherine
Hepburn, and which premiered in Adelaide at Her Majesty's Theatre for the third
Adelaide Festival. He then went on to make and stage several more works for the
company. "Elektra" premiered on the Australian in 1966 in Adelaide, after being
created on the Royal Ballet. Helpmann's connection with the Royal Ballet elevated
the standing of The Australian Ballet significantly. In 1968 he created "Sun Music"
on the company, which went on to break all previous TAB attendance records in
its run at His Majesty's Theatre. In 1975, he produced "The Merry Widow," choreographed
by Ronald Hynd. This was the first evening-length ballet created for the company.
Robert Helpmann was a star, inviting other international stars to come to Australia
to see the company. it may be quite reasonable to say that he truly added to the
credibility and prestige of the company.
But what of the 40th anniversary
gala? From whose thoughts did this program emerge? How does one depict an evening
that is meant to reflect the past, present and future directions of the company?
McAllister had this to say in his
program notes: "I was looking for a ballet that would open this important year
of celebration and say: This is who we are, this is where we have been and this
is where we are going! Rather a big task -- as you can imagine, after looking
at our vast repertoire of over 200 works. However, the seed was planted that if
you could somehow put together little pieces of a whole lot of these ballets it
would be perfect. That was the genesis of Beyond 40."
The evening offered live performances
of vignettes taken from 13 different ballets, interspersed with archival film
and video footage culled by Adrian Burnett, a senior artist with the company who
co-directed the evening with McAllister. The footage depicted some of the events
and the personalities of many of the individuals whose contributions to the company
had been of substantial significance. We saw shots of Van Praagh, and also of
Helpmann, including one with a very glamorous Katherine Hepburn on his arm when
he arrived in Australia to do some work with the company. In general, the marriage
of video technology and live performance was perhaps the least delicate aspect
of the evening.
For the live performances, excerpts
from the 1980 "Beyond Twelve," by Australian choreographer Graeme Murphy, opened
the first act and opened and closed the second, the final image for the evening
being of an individual who walked upstage toward a wide open door filled with
The metaphor may well have been that
all it takes is the courage and endurance of one individual to unfold the desires,
hopes and dreams of the many. For it was one individual, van Praagh, who first
breathed life into The Australian Ballet. And the current generation certainly
demonstrates a realization that it is where it is today -- a company of iconic
proportions in Australia and indeed the world -- because of the many individuals
who have given of themselves.
Murphy's "Beyond Twelve" celebrates
the transition of youthful fledgling to accomplished adult. Comprising three men,
Steven Heathcote, Nigel Burley and Marc Cassidy this work depicted the aging process
of dancers from youth to maturity and provided the metaphor for the company's
After the first excerpt of "Beyond
Twelve, " the company traversed to the Garland Dance, Act 1 from "Sleeping Beauty."
Perhaps there were those in the audience wondering what this was doing in a night
of celebration. But indeed, this excerpt served to demonstrate the work and the
thinking of the ballet in an historical context. The pas de deux from "Swan Lake,"Act
4 followed, as well as excerpts from Dame Ninette de Valois's 1937 "Checkmate,"
"Don Quixote," and "The Merry Widow."
In this first act of the program,
Andrew Carter's set design added substantially to the historic reverence of the
evening. The set was comprised of aged, somewhat large scenic pieces from the
company's repertoire which had been taken out of storage and placed onto the stage
in a way that suggested a picture box view into the company's history.
These old worn pieces were set so
close together that the stage looked cramped, and this was for me exacerbated
by the large open pool downstage left for "the dancing" that made the whole thing
look choked. This may have been the desired effect, but if the idea was to have
it look like the dancers were coming out from the past, breathing that one last
breathe of life, then this utilization of the space didn't convey that..
However, the set was all but discarded
in the second act, comprised mostly of contemporary ballets, with but a few bits
of set flown in as needed.
The company looks brilliant when
performing contemporary ballets. After another excerpt from "Beyond Twelve," we
were led through works such as Glen Tetley's "Gemini," Stephen Page's "Alchemy,"
Stanton Welch's "Divergence," Meryl Tankard's "The Deep End," Stephen Baynes's
"At the Edge of Night," Murphy's Farewell pas de deux from "The Nutcracker," and
the coda from Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc," before closing with a final selection
from "Beyond Twelve."
This was a delightful evening given
in the spirit of generosity to all those who had in one way or another something
to do with the making of this unique company. The evening was a celebration, a
fun relaxed night out in the theatre where both audience and company united in
their enthusiasm and pride in celebrating the Australian Ballet's presence --
historic, present and future. It was an opportunity for loyal patrons to express
their love for the company and, indeed, it was an opportunity for the company
to revel in its achievements and take center stage.
May gravity and weight be forever
unleashed on the stages of the people, to be combined with the consciousness that
strives for the unattainable -- the Heavenly.
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