Left – Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III (Seven Sonatas). Cover – Daniil Simkin, Cory Stearns, James Whiteside and Leann Underwood (Fancy Free). Photos – Darren Thomas, Photo Co
Much like with last year’s Bolshoi Ballet works (which saw opulent classic The Corsair followed by Shostakovich’s oddly quirky comedy The Bright Stream), QPAC have opted for contrast with American Ballet Theatre’s Three Masterpieces.
Whereas their debut production of the season was classical traditionalism in the form of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Three Masterpieces is a very different production – American Ballet Theatre selecting three (very) different works from three (very) different phases of their sprawling 77-year history. The results are impressive, fascinating and, in all likelihood, a little divisive.
The production is wisely divided into three discrete acts – each work given time to breathe and be digested by audiences. The importance of this device becomes more pronounced over the course of the production. Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita opens proceedings gently. Originally conceived in 1983, Partita feels representative of 1980s New York ballet. It’s colourful, repetitive, hypnotic, free-flowing and a little silly. To those who also saw Swan Lake, it’s probably still a jarring introduction.
In comparison to Swan Lake’s optical and auditory largesse, Bach Partita’s aesthetic and accompaniment are stark. There’s no set, functional dress and simply (astounding) violinist Charles Yang as accompaniment. However, a similarity links both works to the same company – strong performances. Not specifically strong ballet performances (if anything, Bach Partita’s ensemble is stronger than Swan Lake’s); but strong theatrical performances.
American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake was particularly distinguished by lead performers who, in addition to dancing with power and precision, revealed a clear understanding and ability to articulate character, pathos and drama. Bach Partita doesn’t have anywhere near as discernible a narrative as something like Swan Lake – but it’s similarly elevated by dancers who understand and express the emotion behind their movements.
There’s a palpable and visually discernible sense of joy in the faces and gestures of the performers in Bach Partita – even when the work seems to drag on a bit and grow aimless; an audience-member finds themselves latching on to and engaging with that immediate sense of joy and playfulness.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas benefits from a brief intermission. In close proximity, Bach Partita and Seven Sonatas could seem like similar works. They’re both spartan in design and accompaniment (Barbara Bilach’s piano substituted for Charles Yang’s violin) and they’re both largely bereft of an immediately obvious narrative. But Seven Sonatas, debuted by the company in 2009, is, in actuality, a very different work. Potentially, the best of the production.
A series of solos, duets and trios bookended by larger ensemble pieces, Seven Sonatas could strike some as a work of technique alone. The six dancers are each given an opportunity to showcase their incredible skill as performers (Calvin Royal III proving especially dazzling and a genuine contender for the night’s M.V.P.). But, the brilliance of the work is how cannily it splits the difference between purely stimulating, beautiful choreography and suggesting deeper threads of structure, narrative, theme and relationships.
Once again, the company’s flair for strong dramatic understanding really helps elevate the work. The ensemble is evenly split between male and female performers and such a split allows for a wider variety of relationships and thematic material to explore – and the performers and choreographer take full advantage. Throughout, there are flairs of sexual energy, humour, camaraderie, friendship, competition, deceit and play.
But, such flashes are never rooted in any explicit narrative. They simply unfold organically in the relationships between the various dancers in their respective performances. This is Seven Sonatas’ ace. It can function freely on a multiplicity of levels. An audience member can engage with the work as a mechanical, clinical work of choreographic architecture or weave together their own narrative reading from the threads of theme buried throughout – or bounce between the two. It’s a very subtle, ingenious work – and beautifully performed.
That said, most audiences would probably lend their preference to Fancy Free – and not without ample justification. Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins for the company in 1944 and set to a Leonard Bernstein score, Fancy Free is a pure crowd-pleasing delight. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra belt out Bernstein’s brassy score with gusto (and offer a subtle silliness when proceedings demand) and the performers leap into their roles with a similarly giddy enthusiasm.
If proof was still needed as to American Ballet Theatre’s dramatic skill, Fancy Free provides a sterling testimonial. A silly, predictable lark about three sailors on shore leave in 1944 trying to secure the affections of a pair of local women, there’s plenty of opportunities for comedic brawling, slapstick, double-takes and drunken dancing and, regardless of what’s required, American Ballet Theatre’s elected ensemble are in spectacular form throughout – from their comedic timing to their management of tone to their having to pretend to be rubbish, drunken dancers.
(Corey Stearns, in this regard, deserves particular praise. Having done a truly exceptional job performing as an archetypal romantic lead in Swan Lake just a week ago, it’s doubly impressive to see him also nail such a goofy, bashful character in Fancy Free – and saddle the burden of providing what have to be some of the most hilariously, albeit deliberately, unremarkable dance moves in the American Ballet Theatre repertoire.)
The entire work is a startling contrast to the more abstract Bach Partita and Seven Sonatas. But, that very much feels like the objective of American Ballet Theatre’s Three Masterpieces exercise – and why, despite many audience-members undoubtedly left preferring one work to another, it actually functions so successfully as a rounded, considered production. Carefully and precisely, it moves smoothly from showcasing ballet as a beautiful abstract form to a more structured contemporary work, to pure entertainment and comedy.
It’s tempting to think of ballet in a particular form and incarnation. Particularly at the scope and standard occupied by companies like American Ballet Theatre. But, Three Masterpieces does an admirable job of illustrating just how rich, flexible and diverse ballet can be as an artform. There’s something for everyone.
American Ballet Theatre presents
Triple bill – Bach Partita, Seven Sonatas and Fancy Free
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Cultural Precinct, South Bank, Brisbane
Dates: 5 – 7 September, 2014
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au | 136 246