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The first thing I noticed as I was ushered to my perch in the State Theatre’s orchestra pit was the vastness of the auditorium and my seeming insignificance therein. Wearing blacks for the occasion, with the audience’s focus clearly on the stage, there’s a reassuring anonymity. We might peer out, but few will take the time to peer in. As I looked up at the chattering folk above I felt distinctly ant-like in comparison. And I don't know why I'd assumed I would be able to watch the dancers as well since it immediately became clear that, along with the other musicians, I'd be listening blind.
The second thing that struck me was the almost deliberately inconvenient shape of the thing. Tucked away far stage left next to the tuba and timpani the pit stretched away farther than my eye could see. Beyond the centrally placed woodwind was an imagined string section far stage right and beyond that, as I was told, a grand piano and more percussion. The depth on the other hand was miniscule in comparison. Clearly any conductor hoping to control the 70 or so players crammed in here was going to have his or her work cut out – it must be like directing traffic in the rush hour at a busy crossroads with musical juggernauts bearing down on you left and right.
The conductor in question was to be Nicolette Fraillon, for 10 years now the Chief Conductor of the Australian Ballet and, as I knew from a fascinating two hour ‘chat’ that I’d had with her in the afternoon, something of a force to be reckoned with in Australian music-making. For the record, she happens to be the only Chief Conductor of one of our national arts organisations that’s a) a woman and b) an Australian. She came into post almost simultaneously with Simone Young and had high hopes for a close artistic relationship (which of course was sadly not to be). In the dying moments before her appearance on the podium a pair of ear-plugs were pressed into my hand with a whispered instruction to “open them now – Nicolette won’t want to hear any rustling of plastic if you do it later”. Was this the musical equivalent of “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”?
Happily not. Fraillon appeared a smaller figure in the vastness of the pit than she had done over a hot chocolate earlier, but the clarity of her beat, the concentration on her face and the control she exhibited at once over the frequently tricky communications between stage and orchestra spoke of a Rolls-Royce musical journey.
It’s a curious way to experience a ballet. As the unmistakably Russian tones of Prokofiev’s melancholy introduction started up I knew that Cinderella was somewhere above my head – but what she might be up to would forever remain a mystery. Down below there was plenty to see however. Orchestra Victoria had welcomed me on arrival and there was a warmth of camaraderie among the players that was palpable. The fact that it was a final performance and that there had been a football match earlier might have helped. Certainly I caught Nicolette smiling at a player still facially adorned with his team’s warpaint. Her conducting technique was also fascinating to watch: eyes up; eyes down; keep the beat; never strand the dancers. An unsentimental, practical approach, far removed from the histrionics of the symphonic maestro, yet generating colour, dynamic and, yes, emotion. And clearly, to judge from the sporadic bursts of applause, the crowd were being pleased by something.
With no visuals to go on, down in Nibelheim we were left to wallow in the delights of Prokofiev’s felicitous score, rendered viscerally exciting by the proximity of the musicians. And I must say that it's physically very exciting when your ribcage is pummelled by every 'parp' of a hocketing brass section in full flight. No wonder we were cordoned off from the relatively mild-mannered woodwind and cellos by a phalanx of acoustic buffers akin to the plastic shields wielded by riot police. By the end of Act One I felt a distinct urge to buy a drink for my closest companions, Jonathan on tuba, his three trombonist neighbours and Guy on timpani – affable lads all who’d not put a foot wrong all night. The excellent trumpets too deserve a mention for some spectacular virtuosic flights of fancy.
Meanwhile the music proved a constant delight. When the brass weren’t in action I was able to enjoy the warmth of the orchestral string tone graced by perky bassoons, mellow clarinets and delicate flutes. The acerbic strings and cheeky woodwind that accompanied the ugly sisters' dance lesson up above drew bursts of laughter from the audience but down in the depths clever old Prokofiev’s music alone was enough to draw smiles from many of the musicians.
By the first interval I was already marvelling at the dedication of these players, forever deprived of the sight of what is going on just above their heads. That isn’t entirely true of course. Many, but by no means all, had taken advantage of the conductor’s open house invitation to see the show on their off-nights (noise safety regulations along identical lines to those in the construction industry dictate that certain players can’t be expected to perform two nights in a row).
Act Two, and I got to change sides, wedged in now behind Shannon and Matthew, a pair of engaging double bass players, and able to rest my notebook on the piano lid at the kind invitation of nimble-fingered Louisa (who was also doubling up on celeste). Stage right is a whole new ballgame, my mates in the brass now a distant memory. First of all there are violins – loads of them (I counted about 20) – and more percussion – three players worth. And that ubiquitous harpist, seemingly de rigueur in any classical ballet score.
At this point, the one and only hiatus of the evening occurred. Nicolette’s Act Two score hadn’t been put in place on her stand during the interval. Would there be a hold up? No siree! She was off flying commando while the recalcitrant score was hastily ferried into place about a minute later.
The bravura ballroom dances were a delight heard in what I could only describe as surround sound. And virtually sitting on top of the grand piano you are really made aware of the flavour it adds to the orchestral texture. By the time that the Prince’s mazurka came along my spirits were as high as a kite and I was having to resist an urge for a twirl myself. The audience didn’t hold back either, going so far as to clap along in one place – what can have been going on? Cinderella’s entrance, again left to the visual imagination, delicately picked out on strings with celeste and glockenspiel made a striking and magical contrast.
The grand waltz, and presumably the pas de deux, was fascinating to watch. Nicolette conducted this a lot of the time in one-to-a-bar, keeping the romantic sweep moving forward, and that split focus crucial to ensure no dancers were ever abandoned in mid-air. And then finally, the deafening onslaught of the midnight chimes replete with double woodblocks, thrilling piano glissandi, side drums and tubular bells. No way was I putting in those ear-plugs and missing this!
For Act Three I’d opted for a seat high up in the auditorium to put it all in perspective – and perspective is exactly what you get. Looking down on the tiny figures in the pit made the previous hour and half seem an age ago. Balance of course was now perfect and the sound was excellent – somewhat better I felt than the version that Sydneysiders will get in the Opera Theatre this November. And of course, once matters were underway I spared not a glance for my former black-clad colleagues.
And what about the visuals? It seems a pity to reveal too much so I’ll leave it at a few general observations. There’s some brilliantly inventive choreography – classical but with a lot of clever contemporary effects frequently adding to the jollity. There’s a sense of homage to the madcap energy of the silent films of the day. The design, locating things round about the time of the ballet’s composition in the 1930s, is a treat, full of colour and light, witty costuming and surreal artefacts like the Dalí ‘lips’ sofa over which the sisters, wearing giant shoes on their heads, fought for prominence.
The show tours later this year and to Adelaide as part of the Australian ballet’s 2014 season. Go see it is my advice – but if by any chance someone invites you to experience it in the pit, the answer is “yes, please”. It’s a uniquely rewarding experience.
The Australian Ballet's Cinderella plays Sydney from November 29-December 18