The audience knew it was about to witness something special, as soon as the opening chords of the Entr’acte to Act Three of Raymonda were heard. This sparkling rendition by the Opera Australia Orchestra under conductor Nicolette Fraillon set the tone for an evening of high-octane, precision dancing, as David Hallberg unveiled his third program as Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet.

Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall in Raymonda as part of The Australian Ballet’s Counterpointe. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The first part of the evening began with Act Three of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda. A grand spectacle, it was one of Petipa’s last and most successful. The third act is a classic wedding scene, reminiscent of his Sleeping Beauty. However, there are no fairies, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, or other traits of his ballet-féerie. This is pure dance – a demonstration of technique that demands a Herculean effort on the part of the dancers to maintain unison during some of the torturously slow tempi in Glazunov’s beautiful score. The soloists of The Australian Ballet rise to the challenge brilliantly in Hallberg’s staging (based on the traditional Petipa choreography).

Petipa was 80 years old when he created Raymonda for his favourite Italian ballerina, Pierina Legnani. It premiered in 1898 to great acclaim at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Since then some of the greatest dancers have taken on the challenge of the title role, including Anna Pavlova, who staged and performed in the first, albeit abridged, production in New York in 1915.  Australian Ballet principal Amber Scott makes the role her own. She shines in her solo Hungarian dance, with its trademark hand-clapping that pre-empts what is to come in Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. Scott is superbly partnered by Ty King-Wall in the pas de deux, and he enjoys some fine solo moments during the variations that follow.

Hallberg has staged the work in an appropriately pared back setting designed by Hugh Colman. The golden backdrop is framed by two swagged curtains and a lone chandelier suggests the opulence of the castle hall in the full-length ballet. It provides just the right ambience for the dancers, who are resplendent in their tutus and tunics in white and gold, also designed by Colman.

George Balanchine was so taken by Raymonda that he first staged it in 1946 at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, before revisiting it twice – once in 1955 when he created his Raymonda Pas de Dix and again in 1961 when he choreographed his Raymonda Variations.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux as part of The Australian Ballet’s Counterpointe. Photograph © Daniel Boud

In Counterpointe, Hallberg has chosen to represent Balanchine with the Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux from 1960. Like the preceding work, this take on the grand pas de deux is a showcase of the dancer’s technique. Balanchine set it to a fragment of music, which Tchaikovsky wrote to enhance the role of Odile, the black swan in Swan Lake, for Bolshoi prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya. This version was not included in the published version of the ballet and only rescued from obscurity by Balanchine, after he’d heard it had been rediscovered in the Bolshoi archives in 1953.

In less than 10 minutes, Balanchine both celebrates and outdoes Petipa, creating one of the most demanding pieces in the ballet repertoire. The adagio ends with a breathtakingly drawn-out fish dive that is followed by the variations – the balletic equivalent of “anything you can do, I can do better” – during which Australian Ballet principals Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo dazzled the audience with their world-class technique. Guo appeared weightless, effortlessly leaping to extraordinary heights before a sure-footed and unbelievably inaudible landing.

The coda was a triumph, with two more fish dives executed by Kondo taking a running leap into Guo’s arms. This was ballet at its absolute best and deservedly drew endless cheers and the odd standing ovation from the opening night audience.

The second part of the evening was dedicated to William Forsythe’s 2004 masterpiece Artifact Suite, which is a distillation of his earlier Artifact in 1984. This Australian premiere has been staged by guest repetiteur Kathryn Bennetts, who has been associated with the work since 1986. The original four-act ballet was Forsythe’s first as the newly appointed Artistic Director of the Ballet Frankfurt. It is a major milestone in 20th century dance, and an undertaking to tackle the piece is a declaration of preparedness by any company. In conversation with Hallberg, Bennetts recalls that when she staged it for the Polish National Ballet in 2012, the Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor told her, “There was life before Artifact and now there’s life after Artifact.”

Not only does it test the skill of the dancers, but it is also a work of epic scale that stretches the physical limits of the stage and occupies the wings and backstage area. Having attended the 2012 staging in Warsaw, it was remarkable to see how adept Bennetts has been at shoehorning Artifact Suite onto the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

Nicola Curry and Jarryd Madden in Artifact Suite from The Australian Ballet’s Counterpointe. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Forsythe created the one-act version for the Scottish Ballet, removing many of the narrative elements of the 1984 version. The original featured the ‘man with the megaphone’, whom Forsythe described as the voice of the dance academy – a foundational authority and the language of ballet that underpins choreography to this very day. Gone too is the woman in historical dress, who represented experimentation and variation on a set system. Nevertheless, Artifact Suite remains Forsythe’s homage to ballet and life at the academy. He has retained the so-called ‘Mud Woman’ from the original, now renamed ‘Other Person’ and performed on opening night by Dimity Azoury. Forsythe sees this role as personifying pure configuration – her rhythmic clapping recalling that of Raymonda earlier in the evening. The dancers take her lead, mimicking her movements without having time to consider what she is doing. Why are they copying her? What ramifications will this have? Bennetts suggests it is Forsythe’s comment on fascism. The hysteria of the masses can definitely be felt in the perfectly synchronised gesticulations of the full company as it confronts the audience. The effect is awe-inspiring and special mention must go to pianist Kylie Foster, who performed the live musical accompaniment composed by Eva Crossman-Hecht.

In New York Dialects, Hallberg drew a line between neoclassical and post-modern ballet. With Counterpointe, he charts the evolution of the Grand Spectacle, with its finales, carefully synchronised ensembles and grand pas deux. The soft, elegant lines of Raymonda have evolved through the bravura of Balanchine into the sharp, angular movements of Artifact Suite, executed here by The Australian Ballet to mathematical perfection. For Forsythe, symmetry and tableau are still important. The pas de deux may seem more democratically distributed among the ensemble, offering bursts of seemingly free expression, but the dancers are ultimately forced back in line. Forsythe says that in ballet one learns by imitating. While more than a century separates the premieres of Raymonda and Artifact Suite, the language of ballet that was used by Petipa is still being expressed by choreographers today, even if the dialects may be a little different.

Counterpointe is another brilliant night at the ballet that wants only for a better venue. The limitations of the stage at the Sydney Opera House have long been lamented, and Hallberg’s vision for the company is not matched by the facilities on offer in Sydney. On two occasions a beautiful tableau in Raymonda was ruined by dancers disappearing into the wings, thereby destroying the perfect onstage symmetry. It’s by no means a criticism of the company, however the fact remains that the finished product was somewhat compromised. Nevertheless, with his second program for the Australian Ballet, Hallberg has definitely arrived, and the company has successfully charted its rite of passage to a post-Artifact life with flying colours.

Counterpointe plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 15 May


Supported by the City of Sydney

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter