At the age of thirteen or fourteen, a group of young ballet dancers will begin their full time training at The Australian Ballet School. Those who stay on at the school will progress through five levels of training, culminating in their final year at Level 8. The oldest of those students will be nearing twenty years old. In this final year, the emphasis on training shifts to encompass various performances that will prepare the dancers for their beckoning stage careers. So demanding is the School’s training programme that in 2009, of the 140 students in the school, the graduating year comprises of just eighteen students.
For one evening, the stage of the State Theatre is all their own. Here, in front of the Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and other companies looking to make their final selections for their intake, the Level 8 students demonstrate their excellence and skills in technique and performance. For other members of the audience – family, friends and dance enthusiasts, the Graduate Exhibition is a celebration, and a night that in many ways reminds us all of why we want to be a part of the world of ballet.
Marilyn Rowe, the Director of The ABS and the Exhibition, has selected a variety of pieces that showcase the talent of her students. There are eleven pieces in total and most feature no more than three dancers on stage at any one time. For all but one of these works, the stage is stripped of any set, allowing the focus to be on the dancers. Francis Croese has instead created simple but tasteful backdrops with various shades of lighting.
Act II of Swan Lake is one of the most beautiful performances of the evening. Against the darkened backdrop, the bare stage is filled with white cygnets and swans. Michael Williams and Barbara Langley have created stunning costumes – tutus and head gear with the fine black outline of feathers. Led by Jessica Fyfe as Odette, the swans are shy, yet cheeky. With the support of Benjamin Stuart-Carberry, the subtle movements of Fyfe’s arms and neck create no doubt that she has transformed from a human into a graceful swan, bringing the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to life.
This excerpt from Swan Lake is in stark contrast to the current production by the School’s parent company, The AB, of another of Petipa’s works, The Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Beauty is one of the longest ballets, and is traditionally one of the most technically difficult to perform. In this production Kristian Fredrikson’s lavish set is visually beautiful, but the brilliance of the performances becomes somewhat lost amidst the vast storyline and repetition of choreography (also by acclaimed Australian choreographer Stanton Welch). It would be unfair to compare the two productions, which vary greatly in their vision and format, but the Graduate Exhibition proves that through variations in style, choreography and themes, a demonstration of a dancer’s brilliance requires very little adornment.
Margaret Wilson’s contemporary piece entitled Nuance is choreographed for the male dancers in the graduating class. Neil McNeill designed the music especially for this piece and the result is breathtaking. The piece is one of unity and the organic, and with the dancers wearing just tights, their strength and the control they exercise is made all the more prominent. Many of the movements bring the male dancers into physical contact with each other, a rather uncommon but beautiful choreographic choice.
The more light-hearted piece, Songs of Light, choreographed by Timothy Harbour and featuring Dimitri Kleioris and Madeleine Murray as young lovers, also received a great response from the audience. The piece that created the most energy in the theatre however came not from a dance by the graduating class, but rather from the students in Level 6. This work, entitled Matya’s Dance, is choreographed by Leigh Rowles to the music of Bill Whelan’s Marta’s Dance/Russian Dervish. Whelan composed this piece (along with the rest of the score) for the dance and music spectacular, Riverdance. It is a track where the tempo gets progressively faster and to see it danced, on mass and en pointe by The ABS students is quite a sight. The highlight comes at the very last moment when one of the three lead male dancers executes a series of pirouettes at an astonishing speed to the music. If this is any indication of the quality of the dancers who will graduate in a couple of years time it is certainly worth waiting for.
There are a couple of curious choices in the Exhibition’s line up. The first is Poems, a series of scenes choreographed by Robert Ray. The scenes have been inspired by the works of English poet Sir John Betjeman, the final of which is a dance slapstick in style, featuring the female dancers in tennis whites, each wielding a tennis racket. The girls dance it well certainly, but the poems, while no doubt integral to Ray’s vision, are rather intrusive and detract from, rather than complement, the dancing and feel of the pieces.
Danza Del Fuego, a flamenco style dance, choreographed by Elena Maya, also lacks a certain something. Transforming a classical ballet dancer into the fiery, passionate dancer that a bolero requires is never going to be an easy task. Whilst a few of the basics of a bolero are evident; the foot tapping and (a few) sharp turns, along with the quintessential movement of the long skirt, Christine Vavladellis’s dancing lacks the strong, defined forms of the torso and arms, and the slow build of grounded movements. It is a shame for Vavladellis that, unlike her fellow dancers, the piece she was given to work with does little to showcase the level of talent she undoubtedly has as a ballet dancer and as a performer in her own style.
The greatest shame is that the Exhibition is performed just one night a year but then, if all goes well, it seems these very dancers will be performing on our stages for many years to come.
The Australian Ballet School
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Date/Time: Sunday 13 September 7.30pm
Tickets: Adults $35 / Concession $25
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | www.theartscentre.com.au, or book in person at the Arts Centre Box Office.