Counterpoint presents an imaginative and impressive debut from the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David Hallberg. The technique, romance and spectacle of classical ballet are skillfully set against a striking and artistically compelling contemporary piece in a daring, courageous and accessible collection of three distinct and landmark pieces.
The three works begin with the classic romantic exuberance of the third act of the wedding of Raymonde, choreographed by Marias Petipa and directed by Hallberg. Established in 1898 in St. Petersburg, the wedding scene is perhaps the most famous part of the ballet. It merges Hungarian folk dance with classical ballet in a technically challenging piece. The Australian Ballet first performed the piece in London with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the lead roles, but the piece has not been seen in Australia for a generation.
Hugh Colman’s set and costumes are beautifully subtle, elegant, and classic: a draped rusty sash curtain and candelabras hang above the stage, and dancers wear complimentary cream and rose gold tutus. The effect is to give an intelligent suggestion of the spectacle that the full production could deliver despite the more subtle staging required for an evening of clips. The performances also reflect a less provocative and flamboyant production, while still keeping the spirit of the piece. The ensemble takes a step back from the choreographic challenges, and the technically accomplished lead artist Amber Scott is flirtatious rather than arrogant like Raymonda when she claps her hands on the audience for their attention.
The second piece is that of George Ballanchine Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. The orchestral piece, originally composed by Tchaikovsky for Swan Lake, was languidly “discovered” in the archives of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow by Ballanchin in 1953. Ballanchin was granted permission to use the composition, and the result is an elated celebration of the classical dance duo. The staging of The Australian Ballet (by Sandra Jennings) is simple, almost clinical, with muted tones of blue and silver. This contrasts dramatically with the cheerful romance of the choreography and performances. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo are delicious as a romantic duo. Guo is quick and bossy on stage, while Kondo is deliciously tender, and the couple earned enthusiastic applause from the audience.
The third and final piece, Artifact Following, contrasts sharply with the other two works, presenting a revolutionary contemporary piece by the famous German-American choreographer William Forsythe. The curtain rises and falls on a series of dramatic vignettes to startling music by Bach and Eva Crossman-Hecht. The piece premiered in 1984 and is both exhilarating and confronting, challenging our ideas about what dance is and what it can do.
Forsythe takes as a premise the political nature of the origins of ballet in the courses of the 17e century in Europe, where shoulder was as much a display of power and richness as it was of elegance and entertaining spectacle. Artifact Following was born out of a movement for dance as theater developed during the 20e century where choreography told stories, created characters and made statements. The Australian Ballet presents a small excerpt from the much longer piece, which consists of four acts. It was directed by repetitive guest Kathryn Bennett, who worked with Forsythe in Germany in the 1970s.
The setting is dramatic, with earthy green leotards, stark lighting, dramatic shadows, and exposed backstage. The symbiosis of dance and music is important to this piece, and the dancers work hard to synthesize the complicated, mathematical score and choreography. The performers obviously enjoy the challenge, and the performance is both exhilarating and exciting. The hard, erratic piano is painfully haunting and skillfully performed by Kylie Foster. The full drama of the longer piece, which incorporates characters and speeches as well as dance, can only be touched upon in this short section, but as it builds towards a relentless, rhythmic finale, it’s an exhilarating ending. to an impressive dance program.
The Australian Ballet
Joan Sutherland Theater, Sydney Opera House.
April 27 – May 15, 2021