A slow start becomes a dream come true for Australian Ballet’s Ashton tribute.

As the undisputed father of English classical ballet, Frederick Ashton is firmly etched in the annals of the art form, but despite this venerable reputation, outings for Ashton’s work are relatively few and far between down under. Australian Ballet have not mounted any of the great British choreographer’s work in eleven years, so even the most ardent of Australian balletomanes could be forgiven for not being well acquainted with Ashton’s masterpieces. Good news then, that the Australian Ballet should present a full evening devoted to celebrating this giant of 20th-century ballet. As an introduction to Ashton’s genius, the second half of this evening of dance was unquestionably the most potent example of why Ashton deserves his place among the great icons in the history of ballet.

Monotones II (Brett Simon, Natasha Kusen, Jared Wright)

Opening this triple-bill was the most recent piece of the evening’s offering, Monotones II. This relatively brief, abstract work of pure dance, created in 1965, was inspired by the early voyages of space exploration, when the public consciousness was enraptured with a vision of a future among the stars. Three dancers, two male, one female, all clad in similarly androgynous, white unitards, are at once ethereally celestial and kitschy b-movie sci-fi in their aesthetic. Set to Erik Satie’s hypnotically serene Trois Gynopédies (sumptuously orchestrated by Debussy and Alexis Roland Manuel), the pas de trois drift starkly across a dimly lit, bare stage evoking the cold infinity of space. This is Ashton at his most economical: the dance is understated, quiet, restrained, but brutally exposed and deceptively technical. Instead of big leaps, or flashy solos, Monotones II celebrates precision, ensemble sensitivity and graceful, effortless poise, but this presentation, rather than giving the impression of weightlessness, felt a little laboured, and in need of polishing.

Fairing better, the 1946 piece, Symphonic Variations, is one of Ashton’s most celebrated choreographic achievements. In contrast to the glacial stasis of Monotones II, this piece, for three male and three female dancers, is fleet, vibrant and undeniably joyous. Set to the music of César Frank, it is an essay in spatial awareness as the six dancers converge, split, and then reform in a kaleidoscopic array of different combinations. Against a sunny, yellow backdrop, a virtuosic cascade of spooling lines, glorious leaps and skittering pointe work extols the space and stillness between the dancers as much as the vividness and energy of the movement itself. The shapes are rooted in the classical (as is the costume, of a Greek ilk) yet the lines are deliberately sharp, the épaulement explicitly angular, as Ashton imbues the technical heritage of this choreography with a refreshing, yet subtle innovation.

Symphonic Variations (Ako Kondon, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks, Amber Scott)

Ashton achieves an unrivalled sympathy between the choreography and the music, imitating the layered counterpoint of the score through the character and complexity of the dance. Once again, this abstract piece can bear little imprecision, particularly with choreography as meticulously synced to the score as this, and some roughness in the execution rubbed a little of the sheen off this otherwise very pleasing account.

Closing the evening we enter the creative territory where Ashton arguably shone the brightest, narrative ballet. The Dream, made in 1964 is an abridged telling of Shakespeare’s comedy of magical mischief and romantic misadventure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to Mendelssohn’s well-loved incidental music. Ashton’s astonishing power to transmute movement into music is all the more impressive as he expertly communicates Shakespeare’s narrative, achieving a blissful synergy between choreography, musicality and story telling. Australian Ballet have invested heavily in realising this piece as faithfully as possible, sending four of its talented principal artists to London’s Royal Opera House to work with Sir Anthony Dowell, Ashton’s original Oberon. Clearly the confidence and potency of this performance is testament to the value of this tireless pursuit of Ashton-ian perfection.

The Dream

The cast Australian Ballet has assembled is unanimously accomplished, but of particular note is Chengwu Guo’s gleefully cheeky, and wondrously acrobatic Puck. Lighter than air, Guo’s fearlessly nimble leaps, twists and tumbles were the perfect foil for Kevin Jackson’s regal condescension as Oberon, King of the Fairies. Despite the technical demands of this ferociously challenging role, Jackson’s stamina and highly evolved stagecraft offered an iron-clad interpretation. Paired as they were in Australian Ballet’s previous production, Giselle, opposite Jackson, Madeleine Eastoe gave a radiant performance as Titania. These two dancers, at the height of their powers, not only left us breathless with the flawless execution of their final duet, but also showed us perfectly the peerless poetry and romantic grandeur of Ashton at its very best.

Australian Ballet present The Dream, on tour across Australia until July 9.