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Flash Review 1, 2-26: Back to the Future
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 "Beyond 12."

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 bright light.

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 celebrations.

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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