The Australian Ballet: Celebration Gala review [Melbourne]

After some 21 months, The Australian Ballet finally returns to the State Theatre, the dancers and musicians showing themselves at tiptop form in the very welcome program of this Celebration Gala

While the stage appearance of an artistic director at the top of the evening usually draws gasps of dread over which artist will not be appearing, David Hallberg was warmly greeted with the multiple rounds of applause as he seized the opportunity to make his first direct address to the Melbourne audience, despite having held the position of artistic director for almost two years. Revelling in the applause, which he admitted he had waited so long to hear, Hallberg implored the opening night audience to take very chance to applaud the artists of the stage and of the orchestra pit, praising the patience that both sets of artists had displayed during almost two years away from the State Theatre. 

Arguably the spiritual home of the Australian Ballet, the State Theatre has not seen an opening night since Volt on 13 March 2020. On that fateful weekend, theatres around the world went dark, with many still not yet back at full strength. 

Announced after the launch of the 2022 season, this surprise Celebration Gala is a wonderful opportunity for Melbourne audiences to reconnect with their beloved ballet company and look forward to the very full program ahead next year. The program is a chance for the company to present items that were to have been seen in the cancelled season New York Dialects along with a generous serving of traditional favourites. 

While a mixed program often provides the opportunity to enjoy a significant number of Principal Artists on stage together, the Melbourne opening night of Celebration Gala only showcased four of the current ten Principal Artists. While there are factors that may be well and truly out of the company’s control, it is nonetheless something of a disappointment after such a long wait to welcome the company back to the Melbourne main stage. This is not to say that there that there is not an abundance of talent throughout the ranks of the company, with several dancers stepping forward into the spotlight to make very positive and memorable impressions. 

Taking Hallberg’s cue, when the curtain rises to the elegant sight of 17 tranquil female dancers, the audience bursts forth with hearty applause, a response that continues for much of the evening. 

George Balanchine’s time-honoured reflection Serenade proves an exquisite showcase, allowing the audience to simply relax and enjoy the dancers’ long awaited return. The piece has an organic sense of flow, deriving from Balanchine’s creation of the work in class in 1935 New York. Using lightly bent elbows and wrists, the dancers make fascinating geometric patterns, the success of which comes from the tight precision of the whole ensemble. 

Benedicte Bemet seems to carry the lineage of generations of classical ballerinas in her noble countenance. Even in a serious work, her joy of simply being on stage bubbles just below the surface, making her every stage movement a compelling joy to watch. 

Sharni Spencer performs the fall with requisite grace, and looks imperturbably grand while carried off in the twilight moments of the work. Christopher Rodgers-Wilson offers hardy support with modest grace.

After interval, an absolute feast of ballet ensures, with no less than seven variegated items playing out in 80 minutes.

Of all the curated pieces on show, the excerpt from Artifact Suite is the one that really leaves the audience craving more. Boasting 30 crisply precise dancers, the stage is filled with fascinating waves of intricate movement, more than capably led by Coco Mathieson. Solo pianist Kylie Foster provides expert accompaniment, playing the music of Eva Crossman-Hecht with virtuosic flair. 

Anyone who has read 2020 Davis McAllister biography Soar will have had their memory refreshed about the world-conquering success McAllister enjoyed in partnership with Elizabeth Toovey. The inclusion of one of the pair’s great hits, the show-stopping pas de deux La Favorita, is a lovely nod to history and the ideal “party piece” for a Gala program. Much loved principal artist Chengwu Guo is in ever immaculate form, those leaps just as high and landings just as pillowy. Plucked from the corps de ballet, Aya Watanabe is a fresh delight, the pair earning rousing cheers and applause of appreciation. 

While the pas de deux from Act II of The Merry Widow does not quite have the same crowd-pleasing wow factor of La Favorita, the old world sense of romance is beautifully captured by Spencer and Rodgers-Wilson. 

Showing the depth of their range all night, Orchestra Victoria are in particularly fine form in this particular selection, with maestro Nicolette Fraillon coaxing sumptuous sound from the strings. 

A key element of the New York Dialects program, which played in Sydney despite its season being cancelled in Melbourne, Watermark is a new work by Hallberg’s friend and colleague, Pam Tanowitz. Perhaps something is lost by only seeing an excerpt, but the item is met with what can only be described as mystified silence by the audience. Watching the quirky, jerky moves play out, it is very difficult to latch on to the choreographer’s intention. The final stretch features a lone male dancer who is excellent and yet not named in the cast sheet (it is presumed that this excellent dancer is Adam Elmes).

Seen many times yet always a welcome attraction, the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake is thrillingly brought to life by principal artists Bemet and Brett Chynoweth. As strong in acting as in dance, and that is really saying something, the sterling pair conjures the full vivid characterisations of their roles, with Bemet utterly tantalising Chynoweth’s tormented Prince. 

An all too brief excerpt from Chroma sees Imogen Chapman and Cristiano Martino dance with decidedly muscular sensuality. Even without the distinctive setting, seen in Volt (was it really only last year?) and 2014 mixed programChroma, the work nonetheless shines in its own right.

At the closest to Christmas that the main company has performed any part of The Nutcracker in Melbourne in recent decades, the Dance of the Snowflakes brings the program to a magical conclusion, all the better with the surprise inclusion of the full winter wonderland set from the Sir Peter Wright production.  

Jill Ogai conveys the wide-eyed delight of Clara, with King-Wall proving a gallant Prince and Rina Nemoto dancing the Snow Fairy with neatly understated flair. 

Melbourne’s legions of dance lovers can feast once more, and in hearty style, at Celebration Gala

Celebration Gala plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 18 December 2021. For tickets, click here.

To read the Celebration Gala running order and credits, program notes and Melbourne cast lists, click here

To read The Australian Ballet’s COVID-19 Ticketing Policy, click here

Photos: Jeff Busby

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