Following on from The New Romantics earlier in the year, The Australian Ballet continues to explore more abstract approaches to dance, this time, with the symphonic ballet. Developed by Russian choreographer, Léonide Massine, this style sees ballet designed to the scores of symphony, where music takes on a starring role defining movement, shape and structure. Destiny comprises two such works. The first, Les Présages, is the original symphonic ballet choreographed by Massine to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. When first performed in Monte Carlo in 1933, audiences were divided with some impressed by the tremendous potential of dance being used to enhance symphonic scores, while others were aghast at the notion of symphonies being blasphemed in this manner. It is really difficult to appreciate the significance of this definitive period in ballet history when we now see ballet being performed in such diverse and experimental interpretations. The symphonic ballet also became the platform in which to push boundaries of other art forms including paintings and sculptures. Symphonie Fantastique, the second part of the bill in Destiny, is a work where movement, video installation and costume beautifully culminate, keeping in line with the ideologies of Léon Bakst, Christian Berard and Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, who longed to create “total theatre” on stage.
Les Présages is faithful to Massine’s original production with designer Toer van Schayk reconstructing the kaleidoscopic backdrop by French surrealist painter, André Masson. Massine’s choreography of sharp, angular movements depict symbolic gestures like salutes and the wielding of guns or swords. The work, which is broken into four movements, relates an abstract narrative about man’s struggle with his destiny; the excitement and vitality of life as portrayed by Action (Lana Jones); the invigoration of love as evoked by Passion (Madeleine Eastoe) and L’Homme (Timothy Harbour); the intervention of Destiny (Marc Cassidy); and the natural decline into war. Destiny is interestingly depicted as a goblin-like figure complete with face paint and a lurid green body suit portrayed as the collected temptations of greed, lust and gluttony. The role almost takes on a pantomime quality as Cassidy is required to dart about the stage weaving between Eastoe and Harbour, arms frantically waving. There are strong performances namely by Eastoe and Harbour in their tender and controlled pas de deux as well as by Reiko Hombo, who coming from the corps de ballet, shines in her solo as Frivolity. With her compact frame, she exudes energy and innocence while maintaining lightness to her movement. Though the company may have been loyal to Massine’s work, Les Présages somewhat did not do justice to the dancers’ aptitudes with the males largely as supporting backdrops. The strong militant theme, though prevalent today, felt too archaic and jarred with a modern audience’s sensibilities.
Symphonie Fantastique however lifted the bar with its fresh and original approach with Polish choreographer, Krzysztof Pastor, pushing Massine’s work to new heights. Set and costume design by Pastor’s regular collaborator, Tatyana van Walsum, was mesmerising with tall white panels projecting a series of film images to accompany each section of the symphonic ballet. The loose narrative revolved around the plight of an Artist (Adam Bull) and his unreciprocated obsession with his muse or Idée Fix (Danielle Rowe). As she torments him with rejection, the Artist gradually declines into depression and paranoia. Convinced that she has spurned him, he poisons himself. The final act sees the Artist in a hellish lair being ridiculed and mocked only to end up lonely once again. The drama in this theatrical ballet is powerfully enhanced by van Walsum’s stunning use of natural images of clouds, raindrops and fields of golden wheat and vibrant red poppies. The video segments are deliberately edited to work to the rhythm and shifting moods of Hector Berlioz’s score. Music and the choreography become intrinsically connected to the point you stop knowing which is driving which. One striking connection is when the Artist in his desperation turns to the surrounding women in an effort to find his Idée Fix. The score’s quietness is accentuated by the dancer’s ethereal stillness and the meditative images of raindrops slowly trickling down on screen. With a slight touch on each of the women’s shoulders, the Artist sets in motion each to buree one by one offstage. In their flowing white dresses, the women are as fluid as the water itself. It’s a sublime sight to behold and a real physicalisation of the music.
Bull too is to be commended for his stellar performance for which demanded him to be on stage almost throughout Symphonie Fantastique. With his height and broad shoulders, not to mention, graceful disposition, Bull has the added advantage of being exceptionally arresting on stage. Add this to his emotionally charged performance, and you have the workings of a great soloist.
Destiny is part of the ongoing four-year project of the Ballets Russes and its cultural impact on the development of ballet in Australia. This collaborative project between The Australian Ballet, the National Library of Australia and The University of Adelaide will culminate in 2009, the centenary of the founding of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris.
The Australian Ballet presents
with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Venue: Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre
Dates: Mon – Sat, 7 – 26 November 2007
Bookings: 02 9250 7777