★★★★½ Rising stars come out in dazzling support of old masters.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
April 29, 2016

The divertissement was one of dance’s early-20th century boom industries. Driven at first by the twin desires to produce shorter, cheaper work and to break away from the constraints of 19th-century narrative ballet, it harked back to the more abstract ideals of the baroque and came with the built-in proviso to entertain. Whether it was dying swans or dancing nymphs, the opportunity to impress and explore through solo, duet or full-company work soon inspired a generation from Fokine to Ashton. The fruits of these labours are evident everywhere in the Australian Ballet’s latest winning programme of six works, which culminates in the divertissement to end all divertissements, George Balanchine’s sparkling Symphony in C.

Amanda McGuigan and Christopher Rogers-Wilson in Scent of Love

As a precursor to this substantial second course, Artistic Director David McAllister has programmed three classic divertissements from the last 80 years, interspersed with two new works from a pair of dancers recently nurtured though Bodytorque, the company’s platform designed to showcase new talent. Richard House opens the evening with Scent of Love, an exploration of love and loss, danced by two couples to a pair of short works by Michael Nyman. In stark contrast to his thrilling rollercoaster score for Vitesse (currently in rep at Sydney Opera House with the Symphony in C programme and also well worth a visit), Nyman here is ruminative; indeed the rapidity of House’s movement in the first half of the work sometimes seems at odds with the musical tempo. Nevertheless, from the second pas de deux onwards, the choreographer builds a fluent series of duets capturing the spirit of youthful love while exhibiting a strong visual sense that utilises the space with skill. Designer Kat Chan’s giant structural form on stage, perhaps evoking a brain, conjures ideas of memory and the passing of time, while the arresting opening image of a single female figure emerging from a stunning, backless, red tutu stretching further than Princess Diana’s wedding train, is worth the ticket price alone.

Rudy Hawkes, Kevin Jackson and Vivienne Wong in Little Atlas

Alice Topp’s Little Atlas is even better. With costumes designed by Topp herself, a black clad female dancer steps out of a rising ring of lights (a strikingly effective design by Jon Buswell) as if emerging from some giant MRI scanner. In a beautifully finessed work that explores themes of relationships remembered and forgotten, the woman dances with a pair of shirtless men in a series of sexually charged duets and a brief trio that includes breath-taking lifts and a lot of inspiriting aerial work. Set to an apposite and attractive piano score by Ludovico Einaudi, the dancing throughout is as inspired as the choreography as Rudy Hawkes and Kevin Jackson provide strong, amatory support to the jaw-dropping Vivienne Wong. Everything about the piece oozes ‘wow’ factor as Wong literally flips and flings herself between the two men in a series of skin-tinglingly erotic encounters, the ability of her flexuous body to narrowly avoid disaster at one point leaving the audience gasping. Topp has spent time with Wayne McGregor, and she shares a similar sense of daring and originality with the cerebral British dance maker. Definitely a choreographer to watch, her Little Atlas is a demanding, inventive new work that deserves a life beyond this programme.

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Diana and Actéon

Framing the new pieces is a trio of established shorts. Viktor Gsovsky’s formal Grand Pas Classique, Vaganova and Mazilier’s prancing Diana and Actéon and Christopher Wheeldon’s emotive After the Rain. Miwako Kubota and Brett Chynoweth are a little too evenly paired in the first, a traditional showpiece of lifts, leaps and spins. The work demands pinpoint balance and poise and if one or two of the holds seemed a trifle shaky, Kubota and Chynoweth are strong on coordination and both excel in their solos – he with his dazzling entrechats, she with her graceful point work. If anything, the delightfully pointless cavortings of Diana and Actéon are even more impressive thanks to a flashy and supremely athletic turn by Chengwu Guo. Vaulting onstage to instant applause he proceeds to astonish and astound with a series of gymnastic leaps, bounds and flying entrechats, always landing with perfect poise. Ako Kondo provides the perfect foil for what otherwise would threaten to become a choreographic circus act, delivering a cool, elegant Diana that complements Guo’s flamboyant, bouncy Actéon.

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in After the Rain

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s ultra-refined After the Rain makes an affecting first half finale and is movingly interpreted by Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith, the latter returning to the Australia from his glittering overseas career for what McAllister describes as something of a valedictory performance. The two are excellently matched, at times resembling a pair of somnambulists acting out a touching, nocturnal ritual, all to the tune of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (beautifully delivered on solo violin by Jun Yi Ma with Stuart Macklin on piano). Hendricks captures a translucent, anaesthetised grace as Smith responds sensitively to her entrusted weight in a duet that culminates in an aching final image: Hendricks standing supported on Smith’s upper thigh, arms outstretched as if preparing to face the dawn.

With its three crystal chandeliers, electric blue backdrop and pure white-tutued maidens, Symphony in C is in many ways the classic divertissement, and the epitome of Balanchine’s hyper-Russian choreographic visioning. Inspired by the 17-year-old Bizet’s masterwork, only discovered in 1933, Balanchine here achieved a rare thing, the choreographing of an abstract symphonic score using the forms of 19th-century narrative ballet. The endlessly animated female corps becomes the bustling strings, an oboe solo brings on the prima ballerina, and horn solos summon the male principals to join the fray. Balanchine’s steps are a homage to the past, as is Bizet’s music, but his movement is frequently heightened and subtly out of whack with the simplicity of a classical Petipa.

Symphony in C

The first movement sees Leanne Stojmenov and Kevin Jackson leading the bustling Allegro Vivo (the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon in excellent form), with the latter especially impressive and light of foot. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are perfectly paired in the Adagio of the second movement; him strong, silent and athletic, her especially lithesome in the radiant oboe solo of the first part. Equal honours go to the marvellously disciplined sextet of dancers en pointe whose exquisitely intricate patternings form the compelling backdrop to Scott and Bull’s winning pas de deux. The capering of the tarantella-like third movement is led by the indefatigable Kondo and Guo with vigour and panache, the rustic themes giving it an air of a crazy classical ceilidh. Lana Jones and Andrew Killian are the big guns held in reserve for the concluding, energised Allegro Vivace in a grand finale that brings Balanchine’s cleverly shuffled cast of 32 women and 16 men onstage for a final flourish that would make Busby Berkeley proud.

If variety is the spice of life, then Symphony in C is a multi-flavoured terpsichorean smorgasbord, which like the very best divertissement, sports something for every taste and a great deal more. Highly recommended.

Symphony in C is in rep with Vitesse at Sydney Opera House until May 16

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