International Ballet Gala
Left - Mathilde Froustey. Cover - Natalia and Yuri Vyskubenko

Melbourne audiences have just had the rare opportunity to witness twelve soloists and principals artists from some of the most highly acclaimed ballet companies. The line up of dancers in the International Ballet Gala includes those from The Royal, Paris Opera and Bolshoi ballets. Making for some interesting dynamics, the show is produced by The Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, a Melbourne ballet school that offers its students full time study in a Diploma of Dance. The students of the ACB feature in three of the nine pieces in the show, which is directed by the ACB’s director Christine Walsh, with the aid of the ACB’s associate director, Ricardo Ella.

To fully appreciate the Gala, one must resist the urge to constantly compare the work of the ACB with that of the other dancers. Weakness or imperfection in a dancer is highlighted when alongside a dancer of a much higher calibre, and there is a remarkable difference in the quality of work from the lesser-trained students of the ACB, and that of the visiting artists. It must be remembered that the visiting artists exhibit a greatness that is achieved through remarkable talent and years of training but they started off in a school or company like the ACB. With that in mind and in consideration of the admirable talent and dedication in every one of the show’s dancers, the Gala becomes an exhibition of possibilities.

Most of the pieces in the Gala are a Pas de Deux taken from well-known ballets such as Don Quixote, Swan Lake and Esmerelda. Giselle was also to be performed but on this particular night was omitted due to the injury of its female lead. Marius Petipa, a master choreographer from the early Nineteenth Century, has choreographed many of the pieces, so they take on a traditional form. The majority of these, in the context of the full ballet from which they come, could be described as ‘highlight’ pieces. Whilst Walsh is to be commended for her choice of casting, the placement of one ‘highlight’ after another means that after a while, the movements and pieces lose some of their impact. Removed from their full works, they also lose some of their ability to tell a story. The Don Quixote Pas de Deux and the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake have enough elements within them, namely dynamic costumes and a building of character, to create mood and emotion, but particularly for those who are not familiar with the story of each ballet, this is lacking in many of the other pieces.

In the presentation of Paquita, its opening piece, the Gala and even more so the ACB, does itself few favours. Under a flood of lights the backdrop, a gold curtain painted onto pillars, is obviously fake and rather tacky, and the costumes for the dancers of the ACB resemble those wrenched out of a dusty dress-up box. There are many moments where the brightly lit stage is without one dancer, making the absence of a live orchestra painfully obvious (it is a pity that this work missed out on the orchestra that is planned for their upcoming Christmas production of The Nutcracker). When soloists Mathilde Froustey and Adam Thurlow, dressed spectacularly in white and gold, come onto the stage and demonstrate their technique, these rather amateur elements are only accentuated.

Thankfully, immediately following this is Caravaggio, an enthralling new work by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti. It sees two dancers, Beatrice Knop and Dmitry Semionov, dressed in flesh coloured, skin tight suits, like the naked forms in the Italian artist’s paintings. Set to an emotive strings piece by Bruno Moretti they morph into each other, necks and limbs bent at unnatural yet mesmerising angles. Knop in particular, who remains en pointe throughout much of the piece, shows incredible control.

It is with Ritualism, choreographed by another modern-day choreographer Marc Bogaerts, that the ACB prove that they too can produce a work to match the very best. The lighting is dim, with the dancers highlighted in an electric blue haze that (finally) complements the dancers and creates mood. Dressed in simple black leotards, and dancing to a dramatic drumbeat composed by Slagery van Kampen, the dancers display impeccable timing, energy, precision and togetherness. It is a piece where design, production and performance technique finally come together to create something that is, quite simply, brilliant.

It must be said that the solos of the visiting male dancers display a level of difficulty rarely seen on our stages, and they left the audience in awe. The nineteen-year-old Sergei Polunin and the American Ballet Theatre’s Joseph Phillips astounded the audience with their display of charisma, precision and power, particularly in their leaps and spins. Phillips inclusion was a treat but one that was undoubtedly tinged with disappointment as he replaced the injured Benjamin Ella. Ella, a graduate of The Royal Ballet School started his ballet training with the ACB and it would have been the perfect opportunity for Ella, and the ACB, to demonstrate the dancer he has become. Of the female dancers Roberta Marquez was particularly delightful in Don Quixote and showed great chemistry with Steven McRae.

The final piece in the International Ballet Gala is La Lecon, choreographed by Walsh. It is a vast dramatic and technical improvement on the work with which we are first presented. One of the youngest and tiniest students from the ACB practices her barre work. The older students, also from the ACB, then join her in classic white tutus and showing impeccable timing. The visiting artists come on stage, another performance of brilliance. La Lecon is described by the ACB as a “showpiece of the artistry of the classical ballet technique” but like the Gala itself, it is more than that. It is a display of a ballet dancer’s journey.

International Ballet Gala

Venue: The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall | 100 St Kilda Road
Dates/Times: 7.30pm, 30 - 31 Jul 2009
Tickets: $58 - $78
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

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