Down Under

By Leigh Witchel

Any show that has “Grand Pas Classique” and “Diana and Acteon” on the same program is bound to be a bit of a circus. With five bits ’n bobs performed rapid-fire followed by “Symphony in C,” The Australian Ballet’s program was built as much for flash as class. There was a New York presence besides Balanchine; guest artists David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy, who brought flash and class of their own.

For first half, we were offered two sorts of bonbons, contemporary or classical, all in familiar flavors. The pas de deux from “Diana and Acteon” is right in Murphy’s wheelhouse: Beastly hard technically with only the slightest hint of narrative. She came out prancing and gave folks their money’s worth in tricks. Murphy nailed all her balances: In sustained slow motion turns, diving on pointe into arabesque penchée and holding there like a drinking bird toy on a pivot. Turns were no problem, Murphy can muscle her way through the thorniest of them. But her head and shoulders seemed just along for the ride: loosey-goosey or bobbing like a horse.

Ty King-Wall joined her, entering with an avid split leap. Things started out fine with double cabrioles and turns in second, but King-Wall spun out of a turning jump, lost his bearings and had to recover. He did though, sailing in with bending leaps in the coda.

Lana Jones and Brodie James in “Grand Pas Classique.” Photo © Jeff Busby

The other chestnut, “Grand Pas Classique,” is just as unapologetic a showpiece: breathtakingly technical with no pretense of substance past that: the piece separates the ballerinas from the boys. In bright white finery, formal yet barely adorned, the duet looked like an outtake from “Suite en Blanc” with the same didactic payoff: If you can do it, you can do anything. Lana Jones and Brodie James survived most of the onslaught graciously.

The pas de deux looked as if it were set from well-known videos of it starring Sylvie Guillem, down to the thickly encrusted tiara and the circular saw skirt on Jones’ tutu. James is a coryphée, so getting this part was a big deal. He’s tall and rangy; his lines didn’t always behave. In complex solos, his feet started to flop and towards the end he nearly ran out of gas.

Jones has more experience under her belt, and did her variation cleanly and warmly, but she had her own tiger pit: the repeated turning balances all on one leg. They never seem to end, and she made it, but not with the aplomb she started with. Both did nicely in the infamous diagonal from Hell: The guy spins the woman round, puts her down on balanced on pointe, backs away, and while she somehow remains on balance he spits out a double tour to the knee. It’s just evil.

The contemporary pieces were all homegrown. They had a solid feel and execution, but also a familiar one. “From Silence,” by corps member Richard House to Michael Nyman piano pieces, was a skirt dance. Amanda McGuigan stood as the curtain rose with her back to us, trailed by acres of red tulle. She reached expressively, showing us the muscles of her back. But suddenly, she rose up as if by hydraulic lift, her skirt growing as if she were a giantess, but when she touched down, there was Nathan Brook, who had lifted her. After, whoosh, the skirt split and disappeared to the sides – a nifty Pilobolus trick.

McGuigan and Brook were tall and leggy, stretching and traveling from side to side in a languorous duet. Shortly, Amy Harris and Jarryd Madden walked forward out of the darkness. The two couples danced independently and for a while it looked like two unrelated dances, but the first couple left and the second picked up the thread. In each couple, the man was more ardent, the woman uncertain.  The second duet swirled larger, lifting into big presses. Brook and McGuigan returned, McGuigan went to the men and “From Silence” became a pas de trois. Harris returned wearing the skirt, but though the ending seemed as if it would circle right back to the beginning, it didn’t. She removed the skirt, lay in its folds and gathered them round herself.

“Little Atlas,” by coryphée Alice Topp, covered similar territory but was a pas de trois, this one more emotionally fraught. The scenic element was a circular brass chandelier that rose and tilted like a flying saucer. Leanne Stojmenov, wearing a leotard, posed inside it; Kevin Jackson, watching her, was shirtless. She came to him, he immediately pressed her overhead.

As they danced, Callum Linnane crossed in the back and walked off. After that fake-out, he returned to first join, and then replace, Jackson. After they danced, she was lifted by both men in silence, gently placed down and returned back inside the chandelier. Both men suffered and rolled, but you watched the chandelier rise and tilt as much as the rolling and suffering.

Resident Choreographer Steven Baynes has always made fluid, restrained dances. But at least in excerpt, the pas de trois from “Imaginary Masque” felt self-conscious of its own good taste. To Ravel’s famous pavane, Joseph Chapman and Cristiano Martino parted ruched curtains for Rina Nemoto’s big entrance wearing gray faux Fortuny. This led to a short, skimming pas de trois with careful manipulations and poses. She left whence she came, and they ran off. It was lovely and decorous but there was something about the situation – oh-so-serious and yet once again shirtless – that made “Imaginary Masque” feel less like a masque and more suspiciously like Céline Dion in Vegas with two chorus boys.

The Australian Ballet in “Symphony in C.” Photo © Jeff Busby

“Symphony in C” was conceived to be as much of a crowdpleaser as any of the short works that came before. It’s just got Balanchine’s phenomenal construction, timeless abstraction and longer attention span. Leading the first movement with Stojmenov was a slow lob over the plate for Hallberg. The ballet wasn’t on his shoulders; he was one principal among equals. Everything went nicely; including neatly repeated turns as his showpiece; it was well within, even below, his pay grade. You could see from his unforced smiles and eye contact with Stojmenov he was having a good time. Stojmenov was glamorous, even declaratory. Her opening balances twisting from arabesque into retiré were each a neat statement ending with a period.

Amber Scott goes against current New York City Ballet casting in second movement. She’s on the short side, and a short dancer hasn’t done this part at NYCB in forever. Yet she had no trouble dancing long and tall. She’s mistress of a slow sustained arabesque and took every one of them very slowly but still filled them out. She opted not to do Suzanne Farrell’s head-to-knee penchée (not everyone at NYCB does it either). It was a ballerina performance; what felt missing for a New Yorker was voraciousness. We’re hungrier in Balanchine.

Chengwu Guo was hard to read in the third, jumping, movement. Jetés were high, saut de basques low to the ground, and then he returned to shock us in a wildly elevated pas de chat. Harris and King-Wall came back to lead fourth movement, which led into an honest finale: none of the ballerinas tried to fudge the turn that snaps into second – they all went for 90º.

The ballet was cleanly staged by Eve Lawson with a staffing NYCB no longer does: Only 18 corps women bowing at the end, several of them doing double duty. It worked better on the small-ish Melbourne stage than trying to jam in the inflated contingent Balanchine used to fill the State Theater. Even so, many of the lead dancers in the short works came back as all hands were called on deck. James went from “Grand Pas Classique” to seconding Hallberg as one of the demi-soloists in the first movement. The company’s approach was neater than we’re used to in NYC, but that’s the local accent. It’s nice to see épaulement in “Symphony in C.”

The Australians learned ruefully about the particular tastes of New York critics when they brought us a “Swan Lake” in ’12 that just about everyone else on the planet loved – but us. And if you’re raised with New York eyes, a program like this is going to feel pokey. Yet if some of the evening felt more like stainless steel than sterling silver, the company is solid.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“From Silence,” “Grand Pas Classique,” pas de trois from “Imaginary Masque,” “Little Atlas,” “Diana and Acteon,” “Symphony in C” – The Australian Ballet
Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
September 2, 2017

Cover: Amanda McGuigan in “From Silence.” Photo © Jeff Busby

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