From the classic story of Marius Petipa to the post-structural genius of William Forsythe, Advanced against is a celebration of ballet’s ability to shape itself and adapt to changing cultural expectations. But what makes the work truly exciting is the technical excellence of the Australian Ballet dancers, who perform these demanding pieces with exquisite precision and intense joie de vivre.
Petipa is responsible for many of the great classics regularly played today – including Nutcracker and Swan Lake, sumptuous ballets with rich narratives and extravagant pageantry. However, the last acts of his ballets were often reserved for the celebration of the dance itself and Act III of Raymonde is no exception.
In Hallberg’s version, dancers dressed in warm creams, golds and rich browns (suits designed by Hugh Colman in 1998) inhabit a minimally opulent ensemble (Kat Chan) that is wrapped in large loops of burgundy velvet. In formations of two, four, eight and 16 dancers, they perform a series of perfectly synchronized routines that have all the excitement of a Broadway musical.
But there are also moments so delicate and intimate that they demand more discreet attention. Sharni Spencer’s “Variation de Raymonde”, for example, is interpreted with exquisite grace, its bourrées as ethereal as they are tenuous, its arm movements as scintillating as they are fluid like liquid gold. And as Raymonda’s fiancé, Jean de Brienne, Chengwu Guo inhabits the music with characteristic precision, each cabriole rhythmically perfect, each landing flawless.
The link in the chain of work in Advanced against is the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deuxoriginally choreographed by Petipa for Swan Lake at the end of the 19e century and later made famous through George Balanchine’s 1960 adaptation. Balanchine was heavily influenced by Petipa, but prioritized dance over storytelling, and his version of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux was described as “an eight-minute display of bravery and ballet technique”.
It’s an incredibly demanding piece that directors Yuumi Yamada and Brett Chynoweth deliver with heart-pounding bravado. While the interaction between the two is far from intuitive, the technical prowess of the dancers allows Balanchine’s invigorating and energetic choreography to shine. The high-speed pirouettes and double spins in the air of the solo pieces are as exhilarating and breathless as they must have been when first staged.
Hallberg chose the condensed version of Forsythe’s 1984 ballet, Artifact, to complete the large arc from classic to contemporary. Influenced by the neoclassical and modernist style of Balanchine, Forsythe goes even further by completely deconstructing the conventions of narrative dance. The result, as seen in this performance by Suite of artifactsis breathtakingly beautiful.
Thirty-two dancers in forest green leotards flood the dramatically lit stage (Forsythe was also responsible for the lighting). There’s something military about the square geometric formations, the long lines of dancers moving in unison, their arms rigidly delivering semaphore-like messages. But this is contrasted by the breakaway duets whose undulating cascades of movement are punctuated by twisted arabesques, distorted arches and frenetic, ever-changing stances. It is far removed from Petipa’s choreography and yet there is a sense of honoring rather than criticizing traditional ballet forms.
Throughout the first half of Suite of artifacts, the performance is periodically interrupted by the curtain crashing across the stage before quickly lifting to reveal an altered configuration of the dancers. This leads the audience to see the performance in a new light much the same way the curtain goes up on the various choreographies of Advanced against sheds new light on the ballet as a whole, allowing us to see each piece in the context of the story.
The second half is more organically fluid. The dancers criss-cross the stage in seemingly random (but scrupulously coordinated) patterns, arms outstretched and flapping like elegant birds. Or they lie on the floor with their arms forming rows of crosses and elbows bent in a V-shape. Handclaps frequently punctuate the movement, echoing earlier handclaps in Raymondeas if the contrasting iterations of the ballet form applauded each other over the decades.
Advanced against is ultimately a tribute to the ever-increasing mystery and beauty of the ballet form. It also honors the physical endurance of dancers, constantly pushing their bodies towards the impossible. More importantly, it leaves us energized, wiser, and more enamored than ever with the mesmerizing charm of ballet.
Australian ballets Advanced against is on view at Her Majesty’s Theater through July 13.