British Liaisons
The Australian Ballet
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra / Nicolette Fraillon
Sydney Opera House May 4, 2011

The Australian Ballet’s decision to mount a program of British ballet was an excellent one. Not only celebrating the strong links between local and British ballet, but also because the three works chosen are powerful examples from master British choreographers.

I attended the second performance of the program and it was clear that some settling down would be required before the company is firing on all cylinders. An example is the high discipline required to bring off the abstract Concerto. It is a wonderful work from Sir Kenneth Macmillan, who with Frederick Ashton defined British ballet for the better part of 30 years. He created this work in 1966 for the ballet of the Deutsche Oper.

In setting it to Shostakovich’s brilliant and playful Second Piano Concerto, he was picking up on the approach to ballet developed by George Balanchine, taking an established piece of music and dancing it out.

Soloists Reiko Hombo and Tzu-Chao Chou distinguished themselves, as did Leanne Stojmenov in the last movement.

The newest genius from the British stable is Christopher Wheeldon, who has worked most of his professional life with the New York City Ballet. After the Rain is a two-movement work set to the music of Arvo Pärt. The first part engages six dancers, essaying the originality of Wheeldon’s choreography. Part Two is a sublime pas de deux; slow, elegant, and remarkably moving. In this, Lana Jones and Adam Bull were outstanding.

Finally from the hand of the founder of The Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, a classic work from 1937. Checkmate was premiered in Paris, the heart of the émigré Russian ballet world where the work’s freshness and originality impressed everybody.

Australian dancer Sir Robert Helpmann originally created the role of the Red King and was still performing it 50 years later when the AB revived Checkmate here in 1986. The original costume and set designs by E McKnight Kauffer still impress, especially the dramatic backdrop with its strong evocation of the 1930s.

Allowing for the distinct possibility that the company will present this work more securely as the season progresses, it still remains that some of the choreography now seems dated and, as in the Black Queen’s solo towards the end of the work, a little dull. The stiffness during the dance for the four knights can only partially be put down to a lack of rehearsal. Elsewhere, happily, the brilliance of her work shines though; nowhere better than in the final scene, where the Black Queen checkmates the Red King and kills him.

The other driving force in this ballet is the music by Sir Arthur Bliss. It is a terrific score, dripping with English musical idioms familiar to those who know Holst and Vaughan Williams. The orchestra played all the music well, allowing for the usual problems in the horn section. Nicolette Fraillon conducted with understanding and style.

The Australian Ballet performs British Liaisons at the Sydney Opera House until May 21. View the event details here.