TAB-Harlequinade-Benedicte-Bemet-Brett-Chynoweth-Artists-of-The-Australian-Ballet-photo-by-Jeff-BusbyDelightfully entertaining, broadly accessible and built upon punchy choreography and virtuosic dancing, The Australian Ballet’s Harlequinade is a diverting feast for the eyes and tonic for the times.

And if, perchance, the title conjures thoughts of the like of an energy drink, you’ll walk away completely satisfied from a work that delivers with refreshing, energising appeal and a flavoursome aftertaste.

Rooted in the irreverent tradition of commedia dell’arte and it’s cookie-cut characters, Harlequinade tells the story of the light-hearted and enduring tale of Harlequin and Columbine in a ballet originally created by French choreographer Marius Petipa for the 1900-1901 season at St Petersburg’s Hermitage.

In a co-production with American Ballet Theatre and making its Australian premiere, Pepita would see a marginally expanded and stage-filling spectacle in this highly detailed and quite breathtaking reconstruction by ABT choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky.

Harlequin and Columbine are in love but Columbine’s father, Cassandre, has plans to marry her to the wealthy, old Lèandre and rallies his servant Pierrot to help keep the two apart. Pierrot’s empathetic wife Pierrette, however, steps in to thwart their plans but Harlequin is pushed from the balcony after Cassandre’s henchmen come in pursuit.

Harlequin, after lying dead, then hilariously dismembered, returns to life miraculously and encounters the Good Fairy, who helps him by presenting him with a magic slapstick that realises all his wishes.

Harlequin and Columbine are wed, a little more rockiness follows but love rules victorious – not without a little tongue-in-cheek swipe at an idle, starched and stylised aristocracy and an ineffectual military. Amongst the humour, you could say Harlequinade has the lightness of a soufflé with a touch of the sharpness of a cheddar.

Ornately spun classical lines collide with slapstick orderlessness and comical mime in a frolicking compact two-act performance that reaches the final curtain before outstaying its welcome. Particularly alluring are fleeting frozen-like moments that seemingly capture the art of the photographic.

While Act 1 moves the action along briskly, Act 2, commencing with the couple’s nuptials, advances at a much lesser pace but lays out a smorgasbord of the work’s finest dancing.

Ratmansky’s intention to recreate the original as accurately as possible is similarly reflected in the visual designs. Inspired by Orest Allegri and Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s original designs, Robert Perdziola’s lavish confectionary-coloured costumes magnify the characters within Act 1’s fantastical charming village square and Act 2’s elegant classical ballroom and apsed adjunct at the rear.

The total effect under Brad Fields’ warmly washed lighting design is as sweetly harmonious as Italian composer Riccardo Drigo’s softly radiant score. Conductor Nicolette Fraillon waved her baton with magic of her own, eliciting a refined sound-picture from Orchestra Victoria.

Neither as intricately divine as Tchaikovsky nor as bold as Glazunov – who was originally commissioned to compose the work but was adamant the subject perfectly suited Drigo’s talents – the music nonetheless feels superbly structured and discerningly expressive.

The expertise and versatility of the company of dancers, swelling with an additional 32 children from ballet schools across Victoria as part of the Corps de Ballet, were showcased with precision and panache on Friday’s opening night. Combined, they filled the State Theatre stage’s generous proportions and provided an abundance of blissful spectacle.

Principal artists Brett Chynoweth and Benedicte Bemet danced with unswerving vitality and heartfelt belief as Harlequin and Columbine, their performance chemistry culminating in an exquisite Act 2 pas de deux against a beautiful sequence of 12 ballerinas in plumed powder-puff tutus.

Chynoweth portrayed the earnest and unflinching chequered-costumed Harlequin with confidence, humour and gesticulating brio, throwing everything at his Columbine and his audience, including his longing heart which endeared his character immensely.

As a resourceful and enthusiastic Columbine, Bemet’s poise, nimbleness and dignified classical technique provided strong counterpoint to Harlequin’s zest.

Increasing his mark as a character dancer, a pitiful ambience followed Callum Linnane’s completely immersive rendition of a melancholic Pierrot as he flapped about in the service of his master. Senior artist Sharni Spencer was utterly splendid as Pierette, weaving her assisting way through the story and meeting the dizzying demands with dazzling virtuosity.

Former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote wore his costumed prestige convincingly as the domineering Cassandre, Ingrid Gow moved in graceful step as the statuesque Good Fairy and Timothy Coleman was a hoot, pulling out all stops to elevate the role of Léandre.

In this concoction of syrupy pantomime-like innocence and harmless good fun, Harlequinade seemed to slap its opening audience with a whopping amount of joy. Judging by the infectious giggles from a couple of young kids sitting behind me, it’s a work all the family should enjoy.

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 17 June 2022
Season continues to 25 June 2022
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.

Image: Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth with Artists of The Australian Ballet in Harlequinade – photo Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar