The return of the Australian Ballet to the Sydney Opera House in 2021 was always going to be a momentous occasion, not only due to the fact that it would be the first time in over a year that Sydney audiences could see the national company on stage, but also because it was the first program presented in Sydney with David Hallberg at the helm. It was, so to speak, his calling card – a clear indication of who he was, and what we could expect from him as the successor to David McAllister, whose record-breaking 20-year run as Artistic Director came to an end last year.
It would be hard to imagine a better way of achieving this than with the triple bill, New York Dialects, which opened last night. It is fitting that Hallberg’s arrival should be paralleled by the seminal Serenade, which was the first original work created by George Balanchine after his arrival in America. Hallberg has paired it with the world premiere of his first commission as Artistic Director – Watermark by the celebrated choreographer Pam Tanowitz. In programming two of Balanchine’s neoclassical masterpieces alongside this new work, Hallberg has also boldly recast the father of American ballet as the forefather of postmodern dance. In doing so, Hallberg delivers an evening that needs to be considered as a whole, rather than three individual works in a standard triple bill.
Dimity Azoury in Serenade as part of The Australian Ballet’s New York Dialects. Photo © Daniel Boud
Discussing the creation of Watermark in her quarantine diary for the New York Times, Pam Tanowitz referred to a line by postmodern poet Robert Creeley: “Content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content.” The quote goes to the heart of an improvisational approach to choreography that accommodates any kind of everyday motion as dance. It also reflects the context in which Balanchine created Serenade in 1934.
Balanchine had spent three years roaming Europe and choreographing for various companies, following the death of Serge Diaghilev and the subsequent disbanding of the Ballet Russes in 1929. In 1933, Lincoln Kirstein invited Balanchine to establish The School of American Ballet, for which he created Serenade the following year. While the work predates postmodernism, it was conceived as a lesson in stage technique and its building blocks were what Balanchine had at hand, much like Marcel Duchamp’s found objects. Balanchine even incorporated unexpected occurrences into the choreography, with an accidental fall and the late arrival of a dancer becoming part of the ballet. On the first day of rehearsal, 17 girls turned up. Therefore, the opening tableau features 17 dancers. In her quarantine diary, Tanowitz states that she began plotting out Watermark with 17 dancers – 14 men and three women – as an homage to Serenade.
Tanowitz has created a masterpiece that perfectly stands up alongside Balanchine’s works when sandwiched between them. It would be fair to say that Watermark is the ballet Balanchine would create if he were alive today. As a companion piece, it provides a male counterweight to the predominantly female Serenade. However, it goes much further than simply achieving a gender balance between the two works. On more than one occasion, Tanowitz challenges the gender tropes of classical ballet and even flips the partnering role from male to female. The female dancer, who falls to the floor in Serenade, is here reflected in a male dancer reclining upstage as he watches the other dancers in front of him.
Dancers of The Australian Ballet perform Watermark as part of New York Dialects. Photo © Daniel Boud
Watermark bears all of Tanowitz’s hallmarks. Rapid movements executed with rigid, outstretched arms are followed by more elegant and sustained attitudes. Tanowitz makes superb use of the depth of the stage, creating two groups of dancers that occupy the up- and downstage areas in counterpoint. The chiaroscuro lighting of the upstage group bringing to mind a tableaux of Degas ballet dancers, except here they are increasingly cheeky and playful ballet boys, hanging around the ballet class and even walking up to the stage apron to take issue with the conductor.
In their costume designs for Watermark, Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme also reference Serenade, carrying over a gold braided trim from Barbara Karinska’s 1952 designs to the sleeves on the jumpsuits worn in Watermark. Some of the costumes also feature the waist-length capes hanging from the left shoulder in Jean Lurçat’s original 1935 costumes. Whereas Serenade boasts icy blues, bold purples and gold, Watermark’s palette is black and white, heralding the colour scheme of the third ballet of the evening, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.
Pulitzer-prize winning composer Caroline Shaw has expanded her piano concerto Watermark, which was originally commissioned for the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. Superbly played by the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, and special mention must go to pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Duncan Salton. It is not only thrilling to witness the world premiere of a contemporary piece of music, but also exciting to hear a rare live accompaniment to a contemporary dance piece. In conversation with Hallberg, Tanowitz revealed that this is the first time the score for one of her ballets is being performed live.
In style, the music for Watermark is equal parts Nyman, Gershwin and of course Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C Minor, which was Shaw’s starting point. It serves Tanowitz perfectly, providing sweeping orchestral moments that support occasional break-outs of neoclassical Balanchine, alongside other passages that suit seemingly improvised postmodern movement. Tender and lyrical one moment and eliciting a laugh-out-loud response the next (courtesy of Shaun Andrews’ masterful comic turn), it perfectly captures the playfulness of ballet boys’ antics in the studio. Whether intentional or not, the Gershwin-style phrases remind us that it was in fact George Gershwin who invited Balanchine to Hollywood to work on the movie Goldwyn’s Follies in 1937. In 1970 Balanchine would choreograph Who Cares? to a suite of Gershwin songs, capturing the spirit of New York City. Hints of Balanchine’s choreography from that piece can be seen in both his earlier Serenade and The Four Temperaments, as well as in Watermark, which is only fitting for a program titled New York Dialects.
Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in The Four Temperaments as part of The Australian Ballet’s New York Dialects. Photo © Daniel Boud
In a brilliant male solo, performed by Adam Elmes, Tanowitz further honours Balanchine’s pedigree by incorporating movements that evoke tap and recall the 1936 jazz ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which Balanchine created for On Your Toes – the first Broadway musical to incorporate classical dance. This tap reference then morphs into a pose reminiscent of Vaslav Nijinsky in the 1912 ballet The Afternoon of the Faun. Nijinsky was arguably the first choreographer to shake the foundations of the dance world by deviating from traditional ballet choreography and he also gave greater prominence to male dancers. Intentional or not, the reference to Nijinsky in the male-dominated Watermark is both a fitting tribute and a nod to Balanchine’s own early years with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, where he carried on Nijinsky’s legacy. It is also a precursor to Balanchine’s own references to Nijinsky in the third piece of the evening, The Four Temperaments, especially in the melancholic First Variation danced brilliantly by Brett Chynoweth
If the first two pieces of the evening can be considered a meditation on the creation of a dance piece and experimentation in the studio, then, in the context of this triple bill, The Four Temperaments can be seen as the culminating performance. Gone are the staged accidents of Serenade and the breaking of the fourth wall in Watermark. This is pure black and white Balanchine and the epitome of his neoclassical style. Playfulness gives way to perfection and the Australian Ballet ends the evening as if to say, “We’re back, better than ever!” In an evening of ensemble pieces, it is difficult to pick out specific performers, although unsurprisingly Dimity Azoury, Adam Bull, Robyn Hendricks, Ty King-Wall, Ako Kondo and Brodie James all shone. It is however the entire company of dancers that should be commended. Their technique is second to none and it is incredibly satisfying to see them dance in perfect unison – a hallmark of the company since the days when Maina Gielgud was Artistic Director.
It is a deft hand that can successfully curate a program recasting the role of a groundbreaking choreographer in what Pam Tanowitz calls “the continuum of dance history.” David Hallberg has achieved just that and presented an evening that spans nearly 90 years, highlighting the links between the first seminal work of the neoclassical movement and present-day, postmodern dance. This superb evening culminated with the presentation of the two awards for Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year. Over 200,000 people voted, and both the Rising Star and People’s Choice awards went to soloist Nathan Brook, who also danced in Watermark. It was a triumphant return by the Australian Ballet and bodes well for the future.
The Australian Ballet’s New York Dialects is at the Sydney Opera House until 24 April then at Arts Centre Melbourne 3 – 12 June