Never heard of the company American Ballet Caravan? This was the name given to the company Balanchine assembled when he created Ballet Imperial in 1941, commissioned, rather oddly, by the U.S State Department as part of a goodwill tour of Latin America.
From these peculiar beginnings comes one of Balanchine’s masterworks: a ballet about being a ballerina, with sumptuous tutus, killer footwork and an air of unabashed lusciousness.
Complementing Ballet Imperial in this elegant double bill is Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, its variations infused with a particularly Parisian brand of sophistication. Both works are uncluttered by the usual ballet stories of swans, fairies and lost loves, leaving audiences gasping at the sheer technical brilliance of the art form.
Ballet Imperial is Balanchine’s tribute to St. Petersburg, Petipa, and Tchaikovsky. The latter provided the tempestuous score, Piano Concerto No.2 in G major, Op. 44, composed around 1879, and it commands nothing less than perfection of the choreography and the dancers performing it.
British dance critic Louis Levene, describing the work in 2011, noted “Balanchine’s genius for infusing plotless dance with emotional nuance”. Last danced by the company in 2008, his inventive choreography creates a dream world we can never visit; yet we follow his ballerinas and merge nourished and happy from this glimpse into their gilded world.
Australian designer Hugh Colman’s midnight blue tutus, delicately embellished with flecks of gold, imbue the dancers with an aristocratic grace and nobility.
French choreographer Serge Lifar created Suite en blanc in 1943 for Paris Opera Ballet (a company he headed for almost three decades) and its challenging choreography leaves no room for error; stamina and musicality are key to unlocking its intrinsic beauty. A series of seven divertissements, all requiring their own characterisation and mood, populate the work: the languid La Cigarette, the over-the-top La Flute, the delicate Adage and the precise Serenade are just some of the treats in store.
Each of the pieces is an opportunity for the dancers to show their considerable talents, inviting the audience to show their appreciation after each thrilling crescendo.
A homage to the ballet blanc, and with a definite nod to Swan Lake, the dancers appear in pristine white, strikingly arranged against a black backdrop, creating a heavenly tableau where nothing but beauty exists. Undertones of whimsy and humour are juxtaposed with an air of arrogant chic – “Let me entertain you!” seems to shout the ballerina from her arena.
Lifar first visited Australian shores in 1939, touring with the famed Ballets Russes. It was these tours that sparked a national love for the art form, and led to the creation of the Borovanksy Ballet to satisfy the local appetite for ballet. His next visit came more than four decades later, in 1981, when he came out to stage Suite en blanc for the company. He presented The Australian Ballet with the prestigious Diaghilev Award and dancer Joanne Michel with the Pavlova Prize for her outstanding dancing.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Season: 20 – 28 June 2014
Bookings: 1300 369 741 or online at: www.australianballet.com.au
For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au for details.
Image: Miwako Kubota – photo by Paul Scala