Left - The Australian Ballet's Les Presage. Photo - Jim McFarlene.
Cover - Robert Curran and Kirsty Martin in Symphonie Fantastique. Photo - Justin Smith
Destiny is The Australian Ballet’s double bill tribute to revolutionary ballet choreographer Leonide Massine, a ballet revolutionary who was one of the first to choreograph ballet to symphonic music.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Les Presages opens the evening. Massine choreographed it in 1933 to mixed reviews and it sits in the repertoire of various ballet companies around the world. This is The Australian Ballet’s first crack at it, with help from Tatiana Leskova, brought in from Brazil to restage the large scale work. (Leskova was one of the dancers to tour Australia with the Ballet Russes in the 1930s and has extensive experience remounting Massine’s choreography). The effort has paid off. Les Presages looks crisp and exciting and the dancers seem to relish the challenge.
The work is in four movements – Action, Passion, Frivolity and War and Peace. It’s not a narrative ballet but has a clear sense of journey and is tied to together by the acrobatic Destiny (Marc Cassidy). In bright green and black, almost jester like, Destiny makes frequent appearances and stands out against the large ensembles with his vigourous jumping, deep lunges, chest beating and athleticism.
In pink, burgundy and yellow and against a bold abstract set (reconstructed by Toer van Schayk), the ensemble adopt sharp, angular lines and stiff upright bodies as groups cross stage in Action. The men stag leap and throw arms overhead; groups travel in and out of circular and diagonal patterns with high knee marching.
Each section has a different feel, from the rigid group movement of Action, to Madeline Eastoe’s solo in Frivolity. Cassidy’s Destiny has a recurring and larger-than-life presence (partly to do with his over-the-top costuming and big choreography). The styles echo the music, with Destiny’s choreography often occurring in the most dynamic sections of music.
Despite being made over 70 years ago, Les Presages stands up as a modern piece with plenty of interesting choreography. Traces of Balanchine, Nijinsky and other modernists resonate in Massine’s vision. The Destiny character, with his heavily painted green face and extreme costuming is the only character that seems, by today’s standards, a dated look. There is a true synchronicity of music and dance and the choreography is large enough to sustain the music directed skillfully by Nicolette Fraillion and performed by Orchestra Victoria.
Destiny’s second half is a new work by Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor to Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. Massine choreographed to this music in 1936, and Pastor, who has never seen Massine’s version, has created his own dance interpretation to the same music. Based upon the story that influenced both Berlioz and Massine, Pastor’s movement comes across more as current contemporary, or neo-classical, ballet than Les Presages.
An artist figure (Damien Welch) opens the work in solo with slow suspended movements, as if trying to reach outward, but then retreating back into himself. There are drops and rolls to the floor and much fluidity to the movement. This builds into various scenes including ballroom and pastoral settings that include substantial ensemble dancing and pas de deux.
There are great moments in Pastor’s choreography and he brings out the best in the dancers. But more than the choreography itself, two things stand out about the work. The first will change nightly so not all audiences will get to see it. It is Olivia Bell’s appearance as the Idée Fix, the ideal woman whom The Artist lusts after. On Friday night she was truly exquisite – everything about her radiated. She worked well with Welch, who seemed more emotive and embodied than I have seen him in the past.
The second is the set design by Pastor’s long time collaborator Tatyana van Walsum, who uses a series of revolving rectangular screens stacked side by side from which the dancers enter and exit. There is a harmony to their symmetry and a sense of the largeness of The Artist’s anxieties and fears as dancers stand in front of the tall screens which tower forever upwards. Projections of clouds, rain, wheat (for the pastoral scene) and red poppies (the artist takes opium and hallucinates that he sees his beloved with a cohort of witches) are effective without being over done and create a haunting atmosphere.
There is a lot going on in the 50 minute piece and Pastor’s Symphonie Fantastique really needs several viewings to take it all in. The choreography is the busiest element. Luckily the projections and set do not compete with it, rather work in harmony, setting a mood and the ethereal sense that the action is all occurring within The Artist’s mind.
As a double bill and a program honouring the Ballet Russes on Australian shores, Destiny succeeds. Interested audiences should take opportunities to see recreations such as Les Presages, as they are rarely performed here, yet are just as important to ballet’s history as more familiar and popular 19th century works like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. The company is skilled enough to embrace this modern style and in my mind, actually does it better than some of the classical programming. Overall the dancers looked more exciting and technically adroit in Destiny (and the recent neoclassical program New Romantics) than they did earlier in the year in the traditional and fairly predictable tutu-fest of the Paquita season.
The Australian Ballet presents
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: Mon – Sat, 30 August – 10 September 2007
Bookings: 1300 136 166
with Orchestra Victoria
Venue: Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre
Dates: Mon – Sat, 7 – 26 November 2007
Bookings: 02 9250 7777
with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra