Delectable sugar-spun confection Harlequinade plays to the classical strengths of The Australian Ballet, the feather-light work seen at its best in this splendidly danced season.
Meticulously reconstructed by Alexei Ratmansky from Petipa’s original 1900 work, Harlequinade offers a unique blend of delightful classical dance tempered with gently whimsical comedy, all wrapped in a sparkling bow of glossy design. A stark contrast to previous offering Kunstkamer, the ballet provides the company with characterful roles and abundant opportunity to demonstrate the collective strength of their classical technique.
Having played Pierrot in the 2018 premiere season of this co-production at American Ballet Theatre, artistic director David Hallberg’s affection for the piece clearly evident in his pre-curtain address. Delayed by COVID, the Australian premiere begins its exclusive Melbourne season in pristine form, filling the capacious State Theatre stage in grand style.
Ratmansky’s choreographic restoration is handsomely complemented by similar painstaking work from designer Robert Perdziola. The immaculate costumes and quaint settings achieve the overall effect of transporting the audience to a bygone age of traditional storybook ballet. Harlequinade begins in the type of merry village square seen in Coppélia or Le Corsaire, with act two bringing to mind the pomp and sheer joy of Aurora’s Wedding, set in a grand hall with the wonderful 3D effect of a rear curved atrium.
Vivid jewel-toned costumes conjure a treasure chest of beloved toys come to life. A striking feature of the overall restoration is the way that the colours and styles of the costumes are so integral to the ever changing stage picture created by corps choreography. Act two has the all pageantry of a Gala, the large cast boosted by 32 young dancers sporting miniature versions of the lead characters’ costumes, with one further child playing companion to the Good Fairy.
Storytelling is breathlessly brisk and warmly humorous. Thrown to his death then dismembered by hapless henchmen, Harlequin returns to life faster than any character on Days of our Lives. Extensive mime work is crisply delivered and humour is perfectly downplayed so as to avoid any tendency towards slapstick even though Harlequin is literally holding a slap stick.
A noticeable feature of the choreographic staging is the incorporation of highly theatrical bows after key dance sequences. Further to this, the evening concludes with presentation of the two lead pairs of dancers in front of the curtain, a practice seen regularly overseas but rarely, if ever, used in Australia.
Led by redoubtable maestro Nicolette Fraillon, Orchestra Victoria soars through the melodious score of Riccardo Drigo. While Petipa’s masterworks were, of course, set to the glorious music of Tchaikovsky, Drigo provides a close comparison, one that audience members will readily enjoy at first listen. A charming highlight of the score is the sequence played by brass, beginning with sumptuous French horns, to signal the grand pas de deux, in which Columbine flits about as a lark while Harlequin plays a hunter. The significance of this sequence is signalled by the fact that the overture opens with these notes.
Benedicte Bemet is in her element as precious Columbine, dancing with the exquisite precision of an actual doll. Although the character work for Columbine does not call for much more than sparkling, Bemet does so with effortless grace. All this, plus a jaw dropping sequence of hopping en pointe. Brava!
His expressive face masked, Brett Chynoweth nonetheless exudes abundant character as lovestruck Harlequin, using his entire physicalisation (all the way to the tassels of his hat) to convey a cheeky joie de vivre. A supportive and romantic partner, Chynoweth really wows in his all too brief solo work.
Quite unrecognisable with his distinctive head of wild curls hidden under a mushroom-shaped hat, Callum Linnane plays against type as floppy sad clown Pierrot. Linnane underpins Pierrot’s interruption of the lovers’ bliss with a soulful air of humanity.
In the somewhat thankless role of Pierette, senior artist Sharni Spencer shines in the polished precision of her dance and conveys a warm connection to Pierette’s dear friend Columbine.
Adding to his growing repertoire of character roles, Stephen Heathcote makes a welcome appearance as Columbine’s blustery father Cassandre. Ingrid Gow imbues the Good Fairy with gracious elegance.
Timothy Coleman proves there are no small roles, giving a fabulously fey turn as prospective paramour Léandre.
With a running time of 105 minutes (including interval), Harlequinade is ideal family entertainment. As a child’s first ballet, it would surely establish a lifelong love of the form. For aficionados of classical ballet, Harlequinade is an irresistible treat.
Harlequinade will be streamed live on Ballet TV on 24 June 2022. For tickets, click here.
The Harlequinade cast sheet can be read online. This includes dates when guest artist Daniil Simkin is scheduled to perform.
An update from the front line: given the hopeless arrangement of patrons fruitlessly attempting to use Arts Centre Wi-Fi to view the electronic cast sheet, physical cast sheets are now mercifully back in use. Please recycle the paper if not retaining the sheet as a keepsake.
Photos: Jeff Busby