St Petersburg Blue and French White unite in Imperial Suite

Ballet Imperial and Suite en blanc share much – their speed and exactitude, the technical challenges that allow no hiding place on stage and the fact that they were both created by Russian choreographers in the early 1940s.

But while the two ballets partnered in the Australian Ballet’s double bill, titled Imperial Suite, both pay their respects to Russian classicism, one was choreographed as a tribute to the age of Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky in the late 19th century, while the other took that history and gave it a coating of French spit and polish.

On the opening night of the Australian Ballet Sydney season, Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial (1941) had an edge of finesse while Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, choreographed as a showpiece for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943, had a dustier air.

This may be due to the caretaker role of Eve Lawson, a repetiteur for the New York-based George Balanchine Trust, the organisation that keeps a beady eye on all performances of Balanchine works.

Lawson, who is also the ballet mistress of the Australian Ballet, coaxed the best from the company for its opening night in Sydney. Lifar’s ballets have no such proprietorial constraints and while I’m sure Suite en blanc had an equal element of care, the ballet is burdened by its mannerisms and perhaps the company is over familiar with the ballet that has been performed by the Australian Ballet so many times (more than 250 performances), mainly because the former artistic director, Maina Gieglud, loved it so much.

Ballet Imperial opens the double bill. It‚Äôs obvious from the courtly gestures and the formality of the choreographic patterns that it‚Äôs a tribute to Petipa and Tchaikovsky (it‚Äôs danced to his Piano concerto no 2 in G major) but also to Balanchine‚Äôs St Petersburg years as a student when the Imperial Ballet was still under the control of the czar. However Balanchine‚Äôs unique mid 20th century signatures are also clear in the ballet‚Äôs ever shifting formations, the ‚Äėthreading‚Äô movements of the dancers as they weave their way around one another and the complexity of the multiple turns for the women that no dancer of the late 19th century dancer could manage with such accomplishment.

Balanchine‚Äôs muse, Suzanne Farrell, described Ballet Imperial as ‚Äúthe most difficult ballet I had ever learned‚Ķthe ballerina makes her first entrance to a cadenza solo full of turns stopping on a dime and flashy jumps at breakneck speed, following by a very long, soulful pas de deux; and then a big finale full of fouettes, fast intricate footwork and big saut de basque jumps‚ÄĚ.

The pressure is on for the principals and soloists and on opening night, in the leading roles, both Lana Jones and Adam Bull gave exceptional performances, she dancing on high beam and he in a firework display of jumps in which his long legs moved at knitting needle speed. The five other soloists – Miwako Kubota, Ako Kondo, Laura Tong, Brett Simon and Rudy Hawkes also rose to the challenge with equal aplomb.

For Ballet Imperial the hardworking Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Nicollete Fraillon, was joined by the very talented solo pianist, Hoang Pham. He took his bow on the stage in such a modest manner but he added so much to the performance he really should have taken a curtain call all by himself.

The costumes are the other stars of the Australian Ballet’s production of Ballet Imperial. Over many years, the ballet has had more costume changes than a runway model with the 1941 designs replaced by Karinska’s short-skirted tutus for the New York City Ballet production in 1964 and replaced again by her chiffon dresses of 1973.

In 1967, for the Australian Ballet’s premiere of Ballet Imperial, Kenneth Rowell designed the costumes that referenced Karinska’s 1964 tutus.

Rowell’s costumes were replaced by the exquisite deep blue and teal tutus created by Hugh Colman who also designed the men’s costumes to reflect some aspects of Russian court dress in the late 19th century.

While the elegant simplicity of the costumes of Suite en Blanc has remained the same, changing only from all white to white and black, Lifar’s choreography is entrenched in a time warp, with virtuosic steps from the classical canon interspersed with his quirky inventions Рthe motif of one arm curved and held aloft in an Ahoy There! manner, twisty wrists, legs in parallel positions, jogging (before jogging was invented) and sudden flexes of the hands. Suite en blanc’s opening and closing tableaux, however, still have that audience gasp factor, with all those white tutus and tights against a black background looking as fabulous today as they must have looked back in the 1940s.

On opening night in Sydney Ako Kondo, with Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford, Luke Marchant and Jacob Sofer, danced the Pas de cinq with exhilarating speed and a sense of joy, as did Daniel Gaudiello in the mazurka. And in the majestic pas de deux, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes showed empathy, unity and serenity in the majestic final pas de deux.

In this double bill, however, as much praise should go to the dancers always listed on the cast sheet as ‚Äúartists of the Australian Ballet‚ÄĚ, in other words the lower ranks. Without them, there would be no show at all.

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Dimity Azoury, Natasha Kusen and Robyn Hendricks, Suite en blanc, photo courtesy the Australian Ballet 2014

Reiko Hombo and artists of the Australian Ballet, Suite en blanc, photo courtesy the Australian Ballet 2014

Rudy Hawkes and Amber Scott, Suite en blanc, photo courtesy the Australian Ballet, 2014

Ballet Imperial, choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust, the Australian Ballet, 2014, photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Adam Bull and Lana Jones, Ballet Imperial, choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust, the Australian Ballet, 2014

Karinska’s design for Ballet Imperial, New York City Ballet, 1964

Kenneth Rowell’s design for Ballet Imperial, the Australian Ballet, 1967