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Flash Review 3, 4-9: Mr. B. in Oz
Australian Ballet Brings Balanchine Over Down Under

By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2004 Suzanne Davidson

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Editor's Note: To celebrate the centennial of George Balanchine, the Dance Insider is providing international coverage of Balanchine's legacy.

SYDNEY -- The complete Australian Ballet program April 2 at the Sydney Opera House comprised "Serenade," "Agon," and "Symphony in C," displaying some of Balanchine's artistic output between 1934 and 1957. It's fascinating to me how important Balanchine's early training is in the way these ballets are danced (particularly "Symphony in C" and "Serenade"). The strict epaulement of the Russian technique, the exact directions of the body, on which the whole training is based, are often lacking in today's performances, particularly by Western-trained dancers, which is a great shame. However, our eyes have grown accustomed to seeing most improvements performed en face, and few miss the ecartes of yesteryear. Yet they gave such a special 'taste' and 'feel' to works like these....

Having said this, another truth hits one as one watches these works, which is that every single role, from top principal to the last member of the corps de ballet, should be danced by highly talented and preferably experienced artists, as opposed to just good dancers, otherwise the works lose their special quality -- their importance, their artistic raison d'etre -- and become just another series of (at times over-choreographed) enchainements set to music.

On the first night, most of the company's principal artists were on stage, and they gave wonderful performances of each of these ballets. But one wonders what a second and third cast would do with them. Artistic director David McAllister lost a number of his more experienced dancers at the end of last year -- and it makes no difference that every company has to put up with some attrition most years when this includes dancers such as Nigel Burley, Nicole Rhodes and Simone Goldsmith, it makes too big a dent to be able to fill in a couple of months. Today's principals and soloists are just not used to performing every night, which means that for a subscription season of some 20 performances to be presented, the company simply has to have at least three different casts. I don't believe The Australian Ballet has the depth of experienced artists at the moment to be able to ensure that the standard of these performances doesn't drop on some nights at least.

"Serenade," choreographed to Tchaikovsky's ravishingly romantic score, and superbly lit, felt more than ever like a modern-day "Les Sylphides," in which Kirsty Martin, Lucinda Dunn and Lynette Wills, with Steven Heathcote and Matthew Lawrence, backed by an excellent corps de ballet, produced miracles of musicality and sensitive chiaroscuro of movement. (To read a review of this work's recent performance on a San Francisco Ballet Balanchine program, please click here.)

I must confess that "Agon," one of Mr. B.'s acknowledged masterpieces, has never been one of my favorites -- as opposed to, say, "Apollo." Both are to a difficult Stravinsky score, but the former sounds somehow more dissonant that the latter, so I found it difficult to react with more enthusiasm than that produced by a genuine appreciation of the cast's ability to dance this technically and musically intricate work with apparent ease and enjoyment. The four main couples were Kirsty Martin and Matthew Trent, Lynette Wills and Timothy Harbour, Madeleine Eastoe and Paul Knobloch, and Rachel Rawlins and Adam Bull.

"Symphony in C," to Bizet's score of the same name, continues to remind me so much of the days of the Grand Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas, with its repertoire of symphonic ballets for large casts, in which everyone but everyone had lots to do, and many challenges to face, throughout! This work premiered on July 28, 1947 on the Paris Opera Ballet at the Opera Garnier, under the title of "Le Palais de Cristal." At the time it was considered Balanchine's most spectacular choreography since "Ballet Imperial." In 1948 he staged it in New York on Ballet Society, where it enchanted and captivated audiences, as it had the hypercritical French. (To read a review of the work's recent performance by the Paris Opera Ballet, please click here.)

Lucinda Dunn shone particularly in the first movement of this work last Friday night, when she was partnered by Matthew Lawrence, who seems to be developing into the company's next genuine premier danseur. Dunn's superb technique gives her an assurance even in the fastest, most difficult parts, which is hard to better. The finale brought the house down, of course and I left the theater on a bit of a high -- which is the way the choreographer meant us to feel. Having only seen the New York City Ballet perform in one season (when Mr. B. himself took me into the New York State Theater and sat me down next to him), I cannot pretend to be able to discuss the minutiae of differences between the Australian and New York City Ballet's interpretations. But it struck me that Balanchine wanted people to dance, as opposed to perform steps, and the Australian Ballet certainly danced -- so I think that Mr. B. would probably have enjoyed the performance. (To read a review of a 2003 New York City Ballet performance of "Symphony in C," please click here.)

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of chief conductor and music director Nicolette Fraillon did the scores proud, and did the dancers proud -- which doesn't always follow. Altogether, it was an exciting performance, and a program which I believe will do much to stretch the company's technical and artistic expertise. Unfortunately, following its seasons in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, it seems to come out of the repertoire for the rest of this year.

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