With gala presentation Summertime at the Ballet, The Australian Ballet makes a triumphant return to the stage, the stellar quality testament to the sheer determination and dedication of the dancers and musicians to maintain peak form during an extended period of extraordinarily adverse conditions.
For the pure joy of Summertime at the Ballet, audiences owe a massive debt of gratitude and congratulations to the company’s management for the vision and fortitude that has brought this all too short season to life.
While renovations are completed at The Australian Ballet’s regular home of State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, MC Arena at Melbourne Park proves a surprisingly inspired choice of alternative venue. Perfectly comfortable, the modestly sized arena has a welcome sense of intimacy and excellent sight lines.
In a novel, but possibly quite necessary, approach, the dancers are seen warming up on stage before the show and during interval. Keen audience members will want to skip the queues for hot chips and take their seats around an hour before curtain to take the chance for a candid look at their favourite dancers at work.
Bringing the dancers as close as possible to the audience, the musicians of Orchestra Victoria are positioned at the rear of the performance space, their elevated platform providing a crisp black backdrop for the stage action. Excellent sound design boosts the music with amplification while still allowing natural subtlety and a full range of dynamic expression.
Much as the program of Summertime at the Ballet is a dazzling showcase of dance, the musical selections provide equally impressive opportunities for the musicians to demonstrate their skill. Maestro Nicolette Fraillon deftly leads the musicians through a brisk range of styles, showcasing the work of seven composers. At the beginning of act two, the overture of The Merry Widow is a sparkling highlight.
In the absence of any scenic design elements, lighting designer Jon Buswell provides visual distinction, crafting designs that evoke each production in their original theatrical form.
Following Delibes’ charming “Les Chasseresses” from Sylvia, the dance program begins with a generous excerpt from La Bayadère. New artistic director David Hallberg stages Petipa’s choreography with clear confidence, delighting the audience with the gradual, mysterious appearance of the female corps de ballet in “The Kingdom of the Shades.”
A feature of Summertime at the Ballet is the inclusion of all ten Principal Artists. A proven character performer, Amy Harris makes a relatively rare appearance in a princess-like role, bringing delicate doll-like precision to Nikiya. As Solor, Ty King-Wall uses his lovely long limbs to neatly shift between shows of strength and plaintive longing.
In sharp contrast, the stage then crackles with electricity with a thrilling modern trio form Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015’s 20:21. Despite the low volume of the recorded music (by 48nord), Jill Ogai, Marcus Morelli and Shaun Andrews generate ample excitement, with the dynamism of the trio making excellent use of the large performing space.
The excerpt works perfectly well out of context of the full piece, with the sudden blackout of the finale drawing gasps from the audience. Coryphée Andrews really shows himself as a dancer to watch with his electrifying work here.
Elder statesmen Adam Bull and Amber Scott conjure a languorous sense of romance as they practically dissolve into the gorgeous music of Handel. Sensual and utterly swoonworthy, the dance practically appears to be occurring spontaneously rather than choreographed.
Given that Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace was set to be the centrepiece of 2020 mixed program Molto, the chance to enjoy this charming pas de deux in Summertime at the Ballet is a welcome one indeed.
As counterpoint for the female corps in La Bayadère, excerpts from act one of 2018’s Spartacus is a worthy showcase for the male dancers, in all their bloomer-clad glory. Lucas Jervies’ choreography retains its masculine power, right down to the authentic accuracy of the punches in the fight scenes.
Sporting an Adonis physique that would make an AFL footballer weep, Soloist Jake Mangakahia captures the tense physicality of Spartacus’ rage against captivity. Also capable of tenderness, Mangakahia clearly conveys that the appearance of Flavia is but a dream.
Act one sees a worthy finale with selections from act three of Don Quixote, beginning with the merry bridesmaids. As Lead Bridesmaid, Dimity Azoury seizes the opportunity to shine in her brisk solos.
As newlyweds Basilio and Kitri, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo own the stage with the aura of absolute superstars and are treated as such by the audience. While the grounded, gentle first pas de deux does not entirely play to their strengths, the pair performs the symmetry to perfection and the heady love of the characters shines through. The subsequent solos and final pas de deux showcase the beloved pair at their dazzling best, sending the audience to interval on a high.
Act two opens with the waltz from The Merry Widow, the company achieving a remarkably detailed performance that is as characterful as that seen in the fully staged production. Dressed in Desmond Heeley’s belle époque costumes, the corps de ballet is the height of elegance as they perform Ronald Hynd’s delightful waltz choreography.
Amber Scott returns as a sleek and glossy Hanna. Christopher Rodgers-Wilson captures the mannered charm of Camille.
An ideal concert piece, George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux is a deceptively straight forward classical piece that pushes the dancers ever further as it builds in complexity. Impressing with their nimble skill, Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane bring a fresh, beguiling sweetness to the piece.
Just over eleven months ago, the season of The Australian Ballet’s first presentation for 2021 was cut short by lockdown. The closure of Volt meant that the world premiere of Alice Topp’s striking new work Logos only received three performances. The inclusion of the duet “Clay” from Logos is a welcome opportunity for more exposure of this work.
Boldly beginning and ending in silence, the modern pas de deux achieves raw realism, giving the audience a sense of being spying on the private inner life of a tempestuous young couple. Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook dance with scalding passion and intensity, their casually unkempt hair and natural clothing adding to the air of realism.
A splendid conclusion, the pas de deux and finale from Balanchine’s Theme and Variations makes a welcome return to the Australian stage after an absence of some twenty years.
Brett Chynoweth and Benedicte Bemet gleam with immaculately polished technical prowess. Bemet carries herself with the requisite surety of a grand prima ballerina. Ever expressive, Chynoweth even brings a sense of character to this purely decorative classical piece.
The return of live ballet means that Melbourne has now seen the resumption of all genres of performing arts, a feat that other world cities could only imagine at this point. Given the logistics involved, the pristine quality of Summertime at the Ballet is something of a miracle. Attendance is very highly recommended.
Summertime at the Ballet will be streamed live on Ballet TV on 28 February 2021.
In the absence of cast sheets, read the casting for Summertime at the Ballet.
Read the COVID-safe information for the season of Summertime at the Ballet.
Photos: Jeff Busby