A night of swoons, sighs and razmatazz: The Australian Ballet’s gala of 2016

A spoonful of pas de deux by the late Agrippina Vaganova and the very present Christopher Wheeldon would be excellent medicine for those grumps who tell anyone who will listen how much they don’t like ballet.

The close proximity of the pas de deux in the Australian Ballet’s Sydney-only gala performance last Friday was a mini lesson in the way that ballet can reach deep into our hearts or trigger the same adrenaline rush we feel watching a tightrope act without a net.

The centerpiece of the program, Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which doubled as the overall title of the gala, was a longer lesson in the evolution of classical ballet from the late 19th century to the 1940s.

In its format, the gala closely followed an Australian Ballet single-city program performed in Melbourne in 2007. It too, was given an umbrella title, Paquita, and included several pas de deux, book-ended by a new work from Paul Knobloch, then a company dancer, and the ensemble ballet, Paquita Grand Pas.

Part of the fun of a gala is the interval and after-the-show chat about which piece was your favourite or your friends’ favourites.

Yet in the Australian Ballet’s gala season this month it’s difficult to compare one with another with each piece so different in the concept, the era in which they were choreographed and the relative maturity and experience of the choreographers.

The opener, and the first of two premieres by Australian Ballet corps de ballet dancers, was Richard House’s Scent of Love, danced to two Michael Nyman compositions, Scent of Love and Love Doesn’t End.

The love element was clear in the tenderness of the two couples dancing to the romantic music and there was no need for the confusing synopsis printed in the program.

As House wrote at the end of the synopsis, “everyone should curate their own interpretation”.

Scent of Love has a dramatic opening, with Amanda McGuigan, her back to the audience, wearing a gigantic red rose coloured skirt that drifts outwards like waves on the shore, but the couture drama soon evaporates as the skirt makes a quick exit to give way to a short, pleated-skirt tunic dress.

Danced against a large cloud like object (hard to tell what it represented from where I was sitting) House’s pas de deux are languid, with elegant and eloquent lines for the dancers, but if the ballet is staged again it might benefit from a more definitive ending.

Time travelling backwards, Miwako Kubota and Brett Chynoweth are the epitome of clean, clear classical elegance in Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique choreographed in 1949.

Chynoweth is on a hierarchical rise in the Australian Ballet, deservedly, but Kubota, who joined the company 16 years ago, is still a senior artist when she more than deserves promotion to principal as proved by her performances in principal roles over the past few years.

Alice Topp’s premiere, Little Atlas, should place her firmly in the realm of main stage choreographers working within Australia and further afield.

Sophisticated and complex in its choreography, Little Atlas also resonated with emotional depth as Rudy Hawkes and Kevin Jackson, bare-chested and wearing skinny black pants, encircled and lifted Vivienne Wong within, and under, a rotating, bronze-lit circle of lights that might be geometrically or astrologically observing the dancers’ relationships.

Wong, dressed in a flattering black bodysuit, was remarkably pliant as she was lifted by the two men.

The most powerful element of Little Atlas was the way in which Topp’s choreography for the trio of dancers suggested they were magnetically connected within their own little celestial world as they danced to the music of the Italian composer and pianist, Ludovico Einaudi, played by Stuart Macklin.

In my previous dancelines’ post I’ve written about the history of Diana and Actaeon, choreographed by Agrippina Vaganova in 1935.

It is, as I wrote, a showstopper and Chengwu Guo made the most of it as he circled the stage in a barrage of turns that thrilled the audience.

In any gala anywhere in the world Guo and his wife, Ako Kondo, would be more than welcome. Their charisma and virtuosity will always win audiences.

I just don’t know though, if an old school pas de deux such as Diana and Actaeon has a place a program that is more about beauty, warmth, charm and connections than it is about Soviet era razzle dazzle from the days of Michael Edgley and Gosconcert approved Russian troupes.

Robyn Hendricks and guest, Damian Smith, the former principal of San Francisco Ballet, brought the first half of the gala to an end with Christopher Wheeldon’s heart melting pas de deux from After the Rain.

Their interpretation was the most moving performance I’ve seen of this jewel of a ballet, one so often associated with farewell performances – Jack Soto, Stephen Heathcote and now Smith himself. (This season is his farewell, and it’s taking place in his homeland.)

The sense of farewell is inherent in After the Rain itself as the couple, she in a pink leotard and her hair falling down past her shoulders, he, in loose fitting white pants, holding her like a figurehead or in the shape of a horizontal X until, tenderly fold themselves around one another, seeming to sigh as they lie on the ground.

Symphony in C, first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1993, is one of the most appealing and exhilarating works in the company’s repertoire.

It’s a masterpiece of construction with each of the four movements representing elements of the centre work of a traditional ballet class beginning with a lively entrance, then an adage, followed by allegro and then a grand allegro finale.

Each movement represents Balanchine’s acknowledgment of hierarchy in classical ballet with a principal couple, two soloist couples, and either six or eight women dancing as an ensemble.

Everyone has a chance to shine, with the corps and coryphée dancers constantly moving, rather than standing to one side, framing the principals as they so often do in the 19th century classics.

Balanchine’s love of interweaving, tracery and showy Broadway moments is evident as is his romanticism shown in the swooning beauty of the backward falls of the ballerina in the second movement (on opening night, Amber Scott).

When it ends, with the entire cast dancing together, there’s only one thing we want to happen. To see it again. Now.

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