At the Vanguard: tough and tender was the night

Vanguard is a trio of sweets.

The first and last are sharp and brittle, a wake-up for the palate.

In the middle is a dark chocolate with a melting centre.

The opener for Vanguard, (the Australian Ballet’s title for its new triple bill), is Balanchine’s Four Temperaments.

Close to 70 years old (and introduced to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire under the artistic directorship of Maina Gielgud in the 1980s), the Four Ts remains as engaging and intriguing as ever.

Technically demanding, stylistically tricky, the ballet challenges the dancers who are exposed in more ways than one. The set is a simple cyclorama and the dancers are dressed in practice clothes ‚Äď white T-shirts and black tights for the men, and black leotards with flesh coloured tights for the women.

The women outshone the men on opening night, with Leanne Stojmenov and Lana Jones excelling in their speed, line and attack.

Stojmenov’s depiction of Sanguinic, partnered by Ty King-Wall, was extraordinary in the way she covered the stage with both alacrity and finesse while Lana Jones was born to dance the Balanchine repertoire (as is the Australian Ballet principal, Olivia Bell, who was not cast for opening night but is dancing during the Vanguard season in Sydney).

Danced to the commissioned score by Hindemith, and built around the theme of the four temperaments, Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric, the Four Ts also reveals Balanchine’s playfulness, his manipulation of the classical line and his understanding of many dance styles, including jazz, African dance and Broadway musicals.

Feet are flexed, hips jut out, legs kick skywards, arms are wrapped around the body, the pelvis gets a solid work out as an instrument of aggression, the Melancholic dancer falls to the floor, arms are held Egyptian style and backs are bent lusciously backward as if wings might spring from the vertebrae.

(The Egyptian arms are shown in the image, left, of the original production when the dancers wore peculiar, ornate costumes soon replaced with simple practice clothes.)

The recurring pose is a lift in arabesque with the women held low, at the line of the men’s waists. The image is one of rapid transit rather than a spring into a soaring leap.

Jiri Kylian‚Äôs descriptions of his works have always been opaque but with his newish website,, he does give a little more insight into his ballets and he sums up Bella Figura like this: ‚ÄúImagine that you had a dream in which you fell out of your bed, and as you wake up next morning, you realise that you have a broken a rib‚ÄĚ.

Bella is about dreams and reality, art and artificiality, performance and when performance begins and ends, and so, in the manner favoured by William Forsythe and sometimes Kylian, the ballet begins with nine dancers on stage as the house lights are on and the audience takes their seats.

The curtain closes on the dancers and, as it rises again, the stage is dressed with movable curtains that enclose, drape or frame the dancers as they reveal their vulnerability, occasional shame or shock, tenderness, playfulness, tension or sexuality.

Kylian has a love affair with pliable fabric, often using full-skirted dresses or ballgowns as a way of defining the body.

In his Bella Figura, the costumes, by Joke Visser, are both underpinnings (ruby red corset-like leotards for the women, black sheer tops, flesh coloured briefs) and overpinnings, large and sweeping scarlet skirts worn by both bare-chested men and women. The women’s uncovered breasts seem more like a symbol of vulnerability and honesty than sexuality, except perhaps when two women slowly approach one another, centre stage, then, framed by curtains they have pulled along as they move, slip out of their skirts.

The fact that they are now dressed only in nude coloured briefs and that a fire appears as a burning upstage is a bit like emphasising a phrase with both an exclamation mark and bold typeface.

Bella Figura takes the audience into a surreal world where humans become rag dolls, stride on all fours like elegant dogs, and slide across the stage like skaters, but at the end, return to a wide awake state.

Danced mainly to a selection of baroque music, the ballet ends in silence as a man and woman release one another‚Äôs tense, lifted shoulders, as much as to say, ‚Äėit‚Äôs alright, it was only a dream‚ÄĚ.

Vanguard concludes with Dyad 1929, made on the Australian Ballet by Wayne McGregor in 2009 as part of the company‚Äôs Ballets Russes’ celebrations.

Dyad 1929 references the modernist designs of the Ballets Russes in the 1920s, in particular the the constellation costumes of Massine’s Ode, choreographed in 1928 and designed by Pavel Tchelitchew and Pierre Charbonnier.

The 12 dancers in Dyad 1929 wear black, white and flesh-coloured leotards, some with spots, big or small, some half black and half white.

Dyad 1929’s backcloth is also studded with spots, and neon yellow boldly slices its way into the monotone landscape in the form of bright lights and a circle of light on the floor.

McGregor has said that in Dyad 1929, danced to Steve Reich‚Äôs Double Sextet, ‚Äúthe movement is the message‚ÄĚ.

The bendy, flexy choreography, with bodies constantly arching, rolling and rotating is strong enough on its own to take the audience along for the ride but there are moments as well that indicate a sense of exploration such as when Lana Jones’s leg reaches out like an instrument investigating the space beyond.

It’s tempting, too, to see parallels with The Four Temperaments in McGregor’s use of a jutted pelvis and hip.

All 12 dancers were impressive as they navigated the no-holds-barred choreography, with my eye drawn in particular to Daniel Gaudiello who not only sails through the work but also makes the devilish complexities look simple and fun.

The Sydney season continues until 18 May and the Melbourne season runs from 6-17 June.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull, Dyad 1929, Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, Dyad 1929, Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

Egyptian arms in the 1946 production of The Four Temperaments

Costume for a Constellation, Ode, Ballets Russes, 1928

The Four Temperaments, the Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

The Four Temperaments, the Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

The Four Temperaments, the Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica

Bella Figura, the Australian Ballet, photo © Branco Gaica