First the glitter, then the shadowplay: the Australian Ballet’s double bill

The Australian Ballet’s latest program is a study in contrasts: Romantic era French, versus Imperial Russian, a chandelier versus a Scottish farm house, bravura versus delicacy, a phantasmagoria of airborne sylphs versus a clan of down to earth folk.

La Sylphide is the main ingredient of the evening but it’s preceded by variations from Paquita a glittery showpiece that pads out the evening to two hours twenty minutes including two intervals.

The link between the two works is tenuous to say the least but the program does give the audience a chance to compare two completely different eras in the classical ballet repertoire – from Marius Petipa’s virtuoso solos in the wedding scene of Paquita, choreographed in the early 1880s, to the oldest existing ballet from the Romantic era described by the distinguished dance writer, Ivor Guest, as “momentous a landmark in the chronicles of Romantic art as The Raft of the Medusa [the painting by Théodore Géricault] and Hernani [the play by Victor Hugo]”.

The production of La Sylphide in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire was choreographed in 1836 by August Bournonville, director of the Royal Danish Ballet for nearly 50 years and was staged for the Australian Ballet by the Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn, who played the role of the witch, Madge, in Australia, his last performances before he died the following year.

The Bournonville style of dancing emphasises intricate beats and the famous jete in which the front leg darts forward while the back leg is in attitude.

The role of James in La Sylphide is a gift to a dancer as the acting is as important as the virtuosic solos, and in this role, the Australian Ballet’s Daniel Gaudiello excelled.

That’s not a word I use often. From Basilio in Don Quixote earlier this year, to the Prince in Cinderella and now to James, Gaudiello is achieving more and more as a dancer and actor.

James can be a rather unlovable character – a dreamer, a man who dumps his fiancée on their wedding day and is easily seduced by a creature from another realm, the supernatural world – but Gaudiello succeeded admirably in portraying with great expression the doubts, fears, joy and finally the self destruction of a man hopelessly in love with the unattainable and paying with his life.

Madeleine Eastoe as the Sylphide was more the mischief-maker than a seductress. The Sylphide can be interpreted in a feminine way, as a woman in love with James, or as a mythical creature – a butterfly or hummingbird. Eastoe lent towards the latter.

Her mercurial way of moving, her elevation and delicacy combined to create a Sylphide that was both mysterious and naughty rather than innately vulnerable.

Colin Peasley returned as a guest artist as Madge, one of his famous character roles.

He does not play the wicked Madge for laughs but neither does he underscore the blackness of this evil creature who in nature, is as bitter as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty – another villainess who is so full of hatred that her enemy must die.

Andrew Wright and Vivienne Wong were believable and lovable as Gurn and Effie. Gurn is a cousin of James and catches him chasing the Sylphide. Poor, sweet Effie is James’ jilted fiancée.

The set for Act I of the ballet, a big room in a Scottish farmhouse, centres on three focus points of escape or entry – a chimney, a door and a window. They lead to the outer world of shadowplays where sylphs and witches live, and woe betide anyone who leaves the family home and hearth to seek a more exciting life.

Anne Fraser’s Act I set still looks good on the mini stage at the Sydney Opera House. The Act 2 set, a woodland glade is basic and not as atmospheric as it could be.

Guest conductor, Paul Murphy, from Birmingham Royal Ballet, drew a magnificent performance by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

The Paquita danced by the Australian Ballet is staged on a minimalist set (one chandelier, sparkly background) and with a small corps de ballet of women, four soloists and the leading couple who dance the grand pas de deux.

The ballet is unforgiving in its technical challenges and the need for the corps to look as one. As the piece is a showcase with no narrative, it’s even more challenging for the dancers to step on to the stage, engage with the audience and sail through the steps.

Dancing in a Paquita corps is almost as difficult as in La Bayadere and the dancers on opening night did not always manage the uniformity needed. It’s tough but true that perhaps only the French and Russians, all schooled in exactly the same way and all with the same physique, can make this work look seamless and exact.

The four soloists, in contrast, can show their own individual strengths as they did, with Amy Harris’s ebullience and elevation, Robyn Hendricks’ elegance and fluidity, Ako Kondo’s virtuosity and charisma and Miwako Kubota’s charming demeanour.

As the only man in this version of Paquita the premier danseur really has to sparkle from the minute he appears but Kevin Jackson was withdrawn in the first moments and seemed to relate to the audience only near the end of the ballet.

The ballerina role is an exceptionally difficult one to sustain from a technical point of view, but Lana Jones attacked it with confidence and a sparkle in her eyes that reached the back of the house.

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Madeleine Eastoe in La Sylphide, The Australian Ballet 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury, Amy Harris and Natasha Kusen in La Sylphide 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello in La Sylphide, The Australian Ballet 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley in La Sylphide, The Australian Ballet 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Amy Harris in Paquita, The Australian Ballet 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita, The Australian Ballet 2013, photo © Jeff Busby