Robyn Hendricks in Divergence. Photo - Tim Richardson
Paris Match is The Australian Ballet’s latest programme to be brought to Melbourne and it showcases two works that in style and vision are incredibly different. Created some fifty years apart, Suite En blanc, by French choreographer Serge Lifar, and Divergence, the creation of Australia’s own Stanton Welch, have become signature pieces for The AB. It is through this French-inspired double-bill that the company demonstrates their own diversity and proves that classical ballet has few limitations.
Black and white. Noir and blanc. Striking in their contrast and typically French in feel, these are the colours and mood of Suite enblanc. The Paris Opera Ballet first performed it in 1943 and it was this company’s recent tour of Brisbane that prompted The AB’s artistic director David McAllister to revisit the work. blanc is based on French technique and is designed to highlight the technical brilliance of a company. With the stage stripped bare the slightest imperfection is exposed but The AB’s execution of the work makes some of the most technically difficult movements look like the most natural movements in the world
Beginning quite dramatically with the music of French composer Edouard Lalo, passionately conducted as always by Nicolette Fraillon, the curtain is raised to reveal at least twenty dancers poised ethereally and staggered in height. White tutus and shirts against a sea of black are bathed elegantly in the slightest blue light. This is the beginning of the white on black, dramatic in its simplicity, breathtaking in its scale, and reflective of the work as a whole.
Though essentially a one-act ballet, it is broken up into what could be described as bite-sized pieces. Largely through Lalo’s music the audience are able to ease into a piece, then become consumed by it until they are finally, with great satisfaction, able to exhale. Amidst the demonstration of technical brilliance there is also a refreshing amount of cheekiness, one of Lifar’s trademarks. At one point there is an allusion to the orchestra where the female dancers, ever so elegantly of course, move their arms in time to the music and in such a way that they themselves could be playing the violins.
The unusual, and revealing nature of this work is in part due to the fact that it is the dancers and music that are left to tell the story. However, it is the lighting, staging and costumes working along side them so harmoniously that allows the audience to completely surrender to the ballet. The lighting, designed by William Akers and recreated by John Berrett, remains a soft palette of blues and white, just enough to highlight the dancers, and while there may be twenty dancers on stage at any one moment, their often stationary positioning means that attention never drifts from the principal dancers at that time. It is also no coincidence that the tutu, worn at all times by the female dancers, is flattering to the dancer’s lines and movement, nor that their plain white bodices highlight the lengths of their necks and arms.
On this particular evening the unison of some of the male dancers was less than perfect but several dancers have moments to display their own virtuosity. With the likes of the delightful Amber Scott, Danielle Rowe and Lucinda Dunn alongside the combined liveliness and strength of Yosvani Ramos and Adam Bull, it really is just one brilliant performance following another.
While Suite En Blanc celebrates many of the more traditional elements of classical ballet, Divergence daringly gives a glimpse into the future of the art form. Welch was just twenty-four years of age when he created the work and through it he “wanted to take classical ballet and diverge from it.” In this work, the romance, for which classical ballet is traditionally known, has transgressed into a mood that is more primal and animalistic. At first the bluntness of the movements are almost ugly, especially following the grace of those in blanc, but gradually, to Georges Bizet’s score, the ballet becomes more energetic, more intense and thoroughly captivating.
In this work the white tulle has been replaced with a black mesh that is normally used in air-conditioning units. Vanessa Leyonhjelm’s costume design for Divergence is, for obvious reasons, one of its focal points. The frisbee-like skirts and angular headpieces make very striking silhouettes against Francis Croese’s backlighting, again recreated by John Berrett.
Some of the best moments in this work come when the dancers are in physical contact with each other, forming interesting shapes and carrying out a series of incredible lifts, not to mention a lift between two male dancers, a rare moment in ballet indeed. Each dancer in the cast of twenty-four is as powerful and determined as the next. That said there is one particular image that remains vivid: against a bright orange backdrop comes the silhouette of a dancer’s long leg. It emerges onto the stage from the wings, low to the ground and en pointe, a most elegant and intriguing spider-like form. In this moment the lighting works well but in some instances it competes with the dancers. Just as the wrap-around skirts of the dancers become entangled during the lifts, there are a few elements in this work that detract, if only slightly, from the dancing itself.
As McAllister says, it is through these two works that The Australian Ballet “pay tribute to the heritage” of classical ballet. Even though the dancers in Divergence literally throw away their tutus, it proves that whether dressed in a tutu or pants, in white or black, these dancers are all communicating with the very same language. Paris Match is a fine way to ensure that audiences appreciate not only the origins of classical ballet, but also the ways in which this artform is being projected into the future.
The Australian Ballet presents
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 24 June – 4 July
Prices: $31 -$120
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 www.ticketmaster.com.au