The Australian Ballet fans may not agree with me, but I always think that the company looks their best doing modern ballets rather than the full length classical numbers. Jerome Robbins – a celebration is no exception. It’s a program of four works by the major choreographer, three from the 1950s and one from the 1990s. While there is not huge chronological variety, each work has a very different look and feel and makes for a diverse collection. With roots in both the American ballet and Broadway worlds, Robbins’ wide popular appeal is easy to see. There’s often a narrative/character-based edge, comedy or, at the least, some high drama.
That’s the case in this collection. It opens with The Cage, a vampy world of predatory female spiders honing in on their male victim. To Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra and against a spider web set, the movement is a ballet/contemporary cross-over, with high kicks and modern contractions mixed in with more balletic duets. The choreography is fast and furious, almost grotesque at times, with its over-extended lines and sinewy shapes. The cast had good command of the technical requirements of the style and Robyn Hendricks, as The Novice, was a standout.
In contrast, Afternoon of a Faun, set in a dance studio and playing on the self-love of a male dancer and the female nymph (ballerina) who comes to seduce him, is a softer love duet. It’s filled with sublimated passion and no small amount of narcissism. Luke Ingham is a taut and toned Faun, preening in front of the mirror, arching his back like a cat and stretching his legs, ankles and feet. When Stephanie Williams enters upstage, a power play begins. Robbins takes his inspiration from Nijinsky, but firmly places his duet in a contemporary environment. Exoticism is replaced with realism and its boxy dance studio setting (designed by Jean Rosenthal) evokes perfectly the self-obsessed world of the ballet dancer.
More abstract is the newest work on the program - A Suite of Dances (1994). A red-clad male dancer and cellist share an empty stage tinged with a blue backdrop. Originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov, here the piece was danced by Andrew Killian. His interpretation and interplay with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, performed by cellist Louise McKay, had a pleasingly light and joyous quality. Big turns and ballet beats are broken up with controlled somersaults. Simple turn patterns are executed with a cool, reverential grace. It’s a dance work that encapsulates that idea of celebration in the season’s title – celebration of dance for its sheer beauty and musicality, highlighted by McKay’s integral presence on stage. It’s an enjoyable, easily digestible showcase piece.
Finishing the collection is The Concert, a slapstick ballet loosely based around an oddball audience attending a Chopin piano concert. Pianist Stuart Macklin sets the scene, formally marching onto stage, sitting down at his instrument and wiping a pile of dust off the keyboard. Dancers are various character types – the pushy ones, the paper rustlers, and the arguing couple. They turn into butterflies and dance comic steps. Macklin chases them with a butterfly net. The comic shenanigans come hard and fast and it’s a work that relies on hyper-acting and lots of hamming from the performers. It’s been a crowd pleaser for years and this weekend’s audiences also loved it. I’m in the minority here, but I’m not crazy for its over-worked, overt humour. Never-the-less, it made for a rousing finale to an aesthetically diverse showcase.
The Australian Ballet presents
Jerome Robbins – a celebration
Venue: the Arts Centre
Dates: 5 - 16 June 2008
Tickets: Adults $26 - $115
Bookings: 1300 136 166