Summertime at the Ballet

TAB Summer at the Ballet Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Don Quixote photo Jeff BusbyAs the announcer tells us at the beginning of this work, over the loudspeakers of Margaret Court Arena – no doubt the venue’s namesake will be thrilled at the depth of LGBTQI talent on display – it has been almost an entire year since the Australian Ballet have danced in public.

Their return is on one hand a simple showcase, an undemanding smorgasbord of highlights from previous years’ works; and yet somehow it also feels like a grander statement, a tilt at what we might expect in years to come.

This is about context as much as anything up on stage: longtime artistic director David McAllister has well and truly left the building, and incoming director David Hallberg – the first American to become a principal dancer for the Bolshoi, before he famously crashed out of the ballet world and spent months getting plastered on Melbourne park benches – has taken the reins. There is a sense that Summertime is Hallberg’s initial shot across the bow of this national company, a subtle rallying of the troops

Certainly, the dancers seem desperate to please him. The opening piece, the iconic ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, is in some ways a fiendish choice from Hallberg. It has a long association with the American Ballet Theatre, the stage Hallberg dominated before he left for the Bolshoi, and requires the entire female corps de ballet to move in delicate, lyrical but also perfect unison.

To call it a challenge after a year’s absence would be a gross understatement. For the most part, give or take the occasional wobble, the dancers pull it off. The sheer joy of seeing a full corps of dancers in Alexis George’s stunning costumes lilting across a vast stage is hard to overestimate.

A trio from Tim Harbour’s 2015 Filigree and Shadow, with Shaun Andrews, Marcus Morelli and Jill Ogai, is a brilliant contrast, stripped back and muscular, the dancers’ bodies shifting from rolling sensuality into brusk defiance.

Later we have Clay, an extract from Alice Topp’s 2019 short ballet Logos – a finely layered exploration of intimacy and individuality, of the push and pull of sexual desire – danced sublimely by Nathan Brook and Karen Nanasca. Both works are brilliant reminders of the scope of this company, of what can occur when great choreographic talent meets dancers of such technical virtuosity.

Summertime has its shameless set pieces, fodder for the populist imagination, but after a year of dearth, even these seem entirely forgivable. The ballroom scene from The Merry Widow is sumptuously staged and warmly danced, even if it lacks any dramatic tension.

Just as the grit and desperation was evident in the women dancing La Bayadère, so too does the oily charm of every male dancer on stage feel like an audition for Vronsky, a central role in the company’s upcoming Anna Karenina. And a revisit of Lucas Jervies’ uneven reinterpretation of Spartacus has more brawn than brain, although it is a strong showcase for Jake Mangakahia’s musculature, if not perhaps his charisma.

Several dancers excel, mainly in pas de deux. The justly celebrated pairing of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo only seems more thrilling as time passes, and they relish their extract from Don Quixote. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are gloriously sensual and responsive in their piece from Molto Vivace, somehow managing to make Handel sexy.

Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane deliver a textbook Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth are quite magnificent in the closing Theme and Variations. It is a convincing display of depth from a company that has occasionally lent too heavily on its solo artists for its prestige.

While it feels a little strange to see the ballet return not to the resplendent State theatre but a utilitarian tennis court, it is also oddly apt. We see the dancers limber up before each act, sublime athletes as much as creative professionals.

John Buswell’s lighting is seriously compromised in a venue like this, suffering from a simplistic palette and severe leakages from the auditorium, but there are plenty of beautiful costumes on display, and Nicolette Fraillon conducts a heavily-miked Orchestra Victoria with admirable gusto and verve. Hallberg is finally in charge, and his dancers seem hungry to shine.

Summertime at the Ballet
Margaret Court Arena – Melbourne Park, Olympic Boulevard, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 26 February 2021
Season continues to 28 February 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Don Quixote – photo Jeff Busby

Review: Tim Byrne