The Australian Ballet gala: Tributes to the past, hopes for the future

On November 2, 2012 – 50 years to the day since Peggy van Praagh and her deputy, Ray Powell, took their seats at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney to watch the first performance of the Australian Ballet – the company marked the half-century with the final performance of a gala season.

On Friday night, the gala acknowledged the company’s leadership, past and present, in a curtain call for four important figures in its history – Marilyn Jones, the Australian Ballet’s principal dancer from the earliest years, Marilyn Rowe, its star of the 1970s and now the director of the Australian Ballet School, Dame Margaret Scott, the founder of the school, and Maina Gielgud, the company’s artistic director from 1984 to 1996. The Four Ms took the call with the current artistic director, David McAllister.

The gala also showcased the next generation of dancers and choreographers, among them one choreographer whose work promises much for the future. But no, he is not a member of the Australian Ballet but a 26-year-old corps de ballet member of Stuttgart Ballet, whose duet for his colleagues in Stuttgart, Daniel Camargo and Elisa Badenes, is funny, poignant, expressive and, happily, not derivative.

His name is Demis Volpi and if he continues to make works as good as the gala work, Little Monsters, he may one day be up there in the choreographic firmament with such present luminaries as the freelancer, Jorma Elo and the Royal Ballet trio, Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett, the last a promising choreographer while he was still at the Royal Ballet School in 2003.

Dancing to the Elvis Presley songs, Love Me Tender, Heartbreak Hotel and Are You Lonely Tonight, the Stuttgart soloists Camargo and Badenes wrapped themselves around one another, she caressing his arms and clasping his body, and speaking with her legs and feet in a way that one could almost hear them whispering ‘love me true’.

As Presley’s voice finally pleaded ‘tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?’, the couple were no longer together, but separated by space and time. At the last notes, she gradually faded from sight, upstage.

Throughout the pas de deux, Volpi had the sense and confidence to let one or the other dancer simply stand and wait, rather than busying them with constant interpretation of the old songs.

Even more remarkable was the dancers’s return to the stage for a second appearance in a bravura performance of the gala perennial, the wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote.

They’ve danced this party piece many times, and their confidence was apparent at every turn, every leap and every balance, and even if one single step didn’t quite come off on the night, who cares? Camargo and Badenes had the house in the palm of their hands with their technical power and joie de vivre.

The gala was a work in three parts, with David McAllister’s Overture a sophisticated entree. Danced under a trio of chandeliers to a Tchaikovsky polonaise, the company demonstrated both vivacity and charm, their ranks delineated by slight differences in costumes and for the women, by either short or long white tutus.

The second element was a smorgasbord of pas de deux for both company dancers and guests.

The National Ballet of China’s Zhu Yan and Sun Ruichen followed Little Monsters with the Act II pas de deux from Giselle. It wasn’t a logical segue but she danced with a delicacy and an enchanting airborne quality, and he with near perfect placement.

Mizuka Ueno and Naoki Takagishi from the Tokyo Ballet danced the so-called ‘love’ pas de deux from Carmen Suite but it was more of a lust pas de deux with her incessant and foxy taunting of Ueno’s Don Jose, whose desire switched minimally from an eager ‘yes I will’ to a downcast ‘no I won’t – I’m off’.

Alberto Alonso’s clichéd choreography – with the occasional flexed foot, six o’clock legs (for her) and Soviet era lifts detracted from the athleticism and pleasing lines of the two dancers.

Wheeldon’s pas de deux, After the Rain, was danced by San Francisco Ballet principal, Damian Smith, whose maturity and sensitivity brought out the very best in his partner, Australian Ballet principal, Amber Scott.

Dancing to Arvo Part’s mesmeric Spiegel im Spiegel (written for a single violin and piano) their connection was palpable as they seemed to fall into one another with infinite trust, as he carried her body arched backwards over his arms, then held her aloft and finally wrapped himself beneath her.

This pas de deux usually inspires what seems like one long sigh from the audience and this performance was no exception.

The diminutive American Ballet Theatre principal, Julie Kent, was a luscious heroine in the bedroom pas de deux from Manon, partnered by the Australian Ballet principal, Adam Bull. Her abandonment and ebullience was mirrored by Bull who seemed to relish every minute on stage throughout the entire gala.

The Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux that followed was a reminder of the way in which Balanchine expressed the gracious relationship between a man and a woman but also the way in which he could stir the senses with choreography that demands supreme virtuosity as the dancers bring the work to its glorious conclusion.

This was a perfect showcase for the Australian Ballet principal, Lana Jones, partnered by a gallant Kevin Jackson, who, at the last minute, was called to replace David Hallberg when an ongoing injury meant the ABT-Bolshoi star withdrew from the gala.

Two further replacements, Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, principals from San Francisco Ballet, had the thankless task of performing the Act II pas de deux from Swan Lake – thankless because it was sandwiched between the showpieces of the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and Don Quixote and danced against an entirely inappropriate backdrop of sparkly lights.

Sylve impressed with the openness of her upper body and expressive arms, but Vilanoba faded away into a purely supporting role so that his personality and dance qualities were mostly hidden behind her.

The gala finale, Harald Lander’s Etudes (1948) still has the power to thrill with its demonstration of class work, building from a single plie by one dancer, to barre work in which the lighting focuses on the dancers’s legs in tendus, rond de jambes, retires and frappes, to a silhouetted corps revealing elegant lines – and so to the jumps and turns as Etudes finally reaches its virtuoso conclusion, a journey slowed only in pace by a romantic ballet interlude that continues too long.

For the dancers of Etudes there is no hiding place, particularly as they circumnavigate the stage in the slow turns (led at one point by the elegant and calmly controlled Natasha Kusen, dancing a diagonal of very slow chainees), and a sequence of fouettes by a group of dancers in which each must keep her place or disaster might ensue.

Etudes is a glamorous homage to ballet itself, and the dancers excelled, with notable performances by many, in particular the tireless principal, Adam Bull and senior artist, Ty King-Wall.

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Australian Ballet gala curtain call, on the right, Maina Gielgud, David McAllister, Dame Margaret Scott, photo © Filip Konikowski

Daniel Camargo and Elisa Badenes, Little Monsters, photo © Lynette Wills

Mizuka Ueno and Naoki Takagishi, Carmen Suite, photo © Lynette Wills

Australian Ballet gala curtain call, photo © Australian Ballet gala curtain call, front row, Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, Julie Kent, Maina Gielgud, David McAllister, Dame Margaret Scott, Marilyn Jones, Marilyn Rowe, Naoki Takagishi and Mizuka Ueno photo © Filip Konikowski

Amber Scott and Damian Smith, After the Rain, photo © Lynette Wills

Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, Don Quixote, photo © Lynette Wills

Adam Bull and Julie Kent, Manon, photo Lynette Wills

Zhu Yan and Sun Ruichen, Giselle photo © Lynette Wills