British ballet at its best – and one from the museum

Two out of three fizzed like flutes of the best champagne. The third was, well, vintage of another kind.

The Australian Ballet’s new triple bill, titled British Liaisons, opened with Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which, although created in 1966, looked as fresh as tomorrow’s sunrise.

In the first allegro movement Leanne Stojmenov and Yosvani Ramos were the harbingers of the sunrise, dancing happily in unison, with Stojmenov, in particular, showing her appetite for quicksilver footwork (and a bubbly manner) as she navigated the tricky and potentially treacherous choreography that MacMillan created for the Deutsche Oper Ballet.

In their wake comes the ensemble, sprinting and marching, this way and that, in diagonals across the stage. This corps de ballet, dressed in chrome yellow, moved as one – a miniature dance army prancing to Shostakovitch’s Second Piano Concerto.

The choreography for the corps, and three other couples who supplement the corps, allows for no errors, and it’s to the credit of Julie Lincoln, who staged the work, and Wendy Walker, as repetiteur, that they looked so confident and together.

The second movement, a serene pas de deux, is often presented alone, but here it shone in its rightful place as the central jewel within a necklace. Created on MacMillan’s muse, Lynn Seymour, together with Rudolf Holz, it begins with the ballerina standing on pointe in fourth position (all the better to show off her highly arched feet) and slowly bending into a forward port de bras, using her partner’s arm as a barre.

Amber Scott and Robert Curran danced this movement on opening night with Curran presenting his partner to perfection. (It’s surprising that it’s taken so long for Scott to be promoted as a principal, as she was on Tuesday night. She has appeared in ballerina roles so often, and has looked ready for the highest rank for years.)

In this pas de deux, one can see hints of Balanchine’s Apollo but also all the hallmarks of MacMillan’s own brilliance as the creator of so many mesmerising pas de deux (in terms of the communication between the dancers and the beauty of the lines made.)

Lana Jones commanded the stage with her athleticism and breadth of movement in the final, slightly quirky solo, one that hints of Balanchine’s Broadway style shown in the finale to his Theme and Variations.

Christopher Wheeldon’s 1995 ballet, After the Rain, is also a work in which the second movement, danced to Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel, is the jewel.

This 10-minute pas de deux is one of the most hypnotic in the ballet repertoire. The woman, dressed only in a pink leotard, and her bare chested man, need one another, yet seem to know they must part. He supports her gently over his arms as she backbends like a spider, flexing her feet, she rests on his back, he lifts her aloft like a star. The pas de deux is like one long sigh and the audience is lulled into silence (no coughing fits).

Dancing with Curran, Robyn Hendricks had her moment in the spotlight on opening night. She richly deserved the opportunity, showing sensitivity to both mood and music and an exquisite purity of line.

Then, to finish on a downward inflection, came Checkmate, Ninette de Valois’s pageant-like ballet from 1937.

I understand the rationale for the programming – the Australian Ballet is warming up for its 50th anniversary next year and wants to highlight its beginnings under the joint artistic directorship (from the mid-1960s) of the Englishwoman, Peggy van Praagh, and the virtual Englishman, Robert Helpmann, an Australian but long time resident of Eaton Square, London.

If MacMillan represents the liaison of Britain and Australia in the 1960s and Wheeldon in the 1990s, then de Valois represents a liaison with both van Praagh, who worked for her, and with Helpmann, who danced with Margot Fonteyn under de Valois’s direction.

Furthermore, de Valois gave Checkmate to the Australian Ballet as a gift and to honour Helpmann who created the role of the Red King.

But its repetitive classroom steps, combined with its strutting and posing moves, were in such stark contrast to the uplifting beauty of the other two works, that it shifted the mood of the evening from sunny to cloudy with possible showers.

While Colin Peasley was a memorable Red King, and Tzu-Chao Chou was convincing as the First Red Knight, Miwako Kubota’s demeanour and stature is not a hand-in-glove fit for the dominating role of the wicked Black Queen.

Checkmate was unconvincing as an engaging drama, as much as it might fascinate scholars as representative of a specific era in the development of British ballet.

It’s all too easy to second guess, but a more lively finish to the evening might have been one of two Frederick Ashton works in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, Les Patineurs or Birthday Offering, both devilishly difficult, but offering challenges to the female dancers that they most likely do not find dressed as pawns with funny red hats.

Finally, it was good to see Nicolette Fraillon back in the pit conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra with such finesse and Stuart Macklin doing double duty as piano soloist for both Concerto and After the Rain.

British Liaisons is at the Sydney Opera House until 21 May then at the Arts Centre, State Theatre, Melbourne, from 25 August to 3 September.

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After the Rain, Kirsty Martin, photo by Justin Smith

Concerto, Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian, photo, Georges Antoni

Checkmate, Daniel Gaudiello and Olivia Bell, photo by Georges Antoni