The Australian Ballet: Ballet Under the Stars

TAB-Benedicte-Bemet-and-Joseph-Caley-in-Don-Quixote-photo-by-Kate-LongleySaturday evening saw The Australian Ballet back at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl for Ballet Under the Stars after an 8 year gap – in excellent form, both entertaining and thrilling a sprawling appreciative crowd of several thousand.

Sunnily and informatively hosted by Television Presenter Livinia Nixon and AB Senior Artist Jarryd Madden, not even a sprinkle of rain could dampen the evening. And while there were no stars above to be seen, there were plenty to impress on stage. 

In a program that extended well beyond the tutu, what prevailed was an appealing air of diversity, inclusivity, accessibility and communal spirit in this, a 60th anniversary year celebration.

Pre-show entertainment included a nifty peek into the dancers’ preparations during a warm up at an on-stage ballet barre class with time for autographs before the main event. 

To begin, inspiring Indigenous dance brought reminders just how much the local lands we live on are an environmentally and culturally precious entity with 4 members of the Wurundjeri women’s dance group Djirri Djirri giving a rhythmic and resonant performance meshed with the echoing voice of founder, singer and songwriter Mandy Nicholson.

A powerful sounding and skilfully evident contingent, the more than 70-strong Orchestra Victoria followed up with familiar excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake under the energetic leadership of newly appointed AB Music Director Jonathan Lo.

To a special arrangement of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, a new work by Lucas Jervies, The Vow – performed in partnership with The Australian Ballet School – delighted with its 30 minutes of spirited choreography and easily conveyed storytelling of an Aussie country wedding gone awry.

Coryphée Riley Lapham (Bride), senior artist Nathan Brook (Groom) and guest artist Matthew Solovieff (Best Man), illuminated their respective roles with lashings of character as proceedings were interrupted by the bride’s fuming ex-boyfriend, executed with marvellous flexibility and passion-driven force by senior artist Marcus Morelli.

And after Morelli and Lapham’s climactic, intensely danced pas de deux, followed by Lapham’s sensuous and poised pas de deux with  Brook, it becomes clear who her choice lies in.

Going out with sensational flair before interval, principal artists Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo were bombarded with intermittent applause as each demonstrated their remarkable artistic and technical skills, with a little twinkle in their chemistry, in the elegant and electric Pas de Deux from the heavily revised mid 19th century ballet, Le Corsaire.

Orchestra Victoria welcomed the second half with the fabulously seductive and sinuous lines of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s Danzon No. 2, with Lo exhibiting his own youthful agility on the podium to give rapturous pizzazz to the piece.

Characterised by a street casualness that belies the terrifically athletic, ever-changing patterns of movement, an excerpt from Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s I New Then, which premiered at Nederlands Dans Theater in 2012, followed. 

Revisiting their roles when its Australian premiere took place as a feature of DanceX last year, Principal artist Callum Linnane and corps de ballet member Adam Elmes paired impeccably as Elmes fell in and out of shadowing Linnane’s quirky motions.

They were joined by 7 dancers, creating thereon, dynamic, pulsating scenes in an absorbing work which journeys from youth to adulthood to the soundtrack of Van Morrison’s soul-filled Madame George. Co-host Jarryd Madden shared his thoughts as it being a personal favourite and its savvy, raw and touching qualities easily make it so.

Of course, it was no surprise the evening would close with something spectacular and a taste of the extravagance to come in the company’s upcoming production of Don Quixote next month at Arts Centre Melbourne exceeded expectation. 

Choreographed by the legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev (after Marius Petipa) in a filmed version released 50 years ago, the work has been recreated for the stage with lavish costumes by Barry Kay. 

And the choreography was just as eye-catching in this Act 3 excerpt with a foot charging flamenco-like start from the corps de ballet before principal artists Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley arrived as wedded couple Kitri and Basilio.

Breath-taking to watch, the pair dazzled with precise, beautifully centred geometry and strength disguised by incredible effortlessness. Senior artist Dana Stephensen similarly impressed with her confident, personality-filled solo. 

When Bemet and Caley’s final exhilarating pirouettes concluded the program, AFL-like roars erupted from the bandshell. 

From major and minor sponsors to lighting designer Tom Willis’ mood-varying lighting, the fine crowd management and down to the stage sweeper who didn’t go unnoticed by Madden, the event relies on so many people a thank you to go out to. And if everyone heeds Madden’s sales plug – I’m with him on that – tickets sales should skyrocket. 

The Australian Ballet: Ballet Under the Stars
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Kings Domain, Melbourne
Performance: Saturday
25 February 2023

Image: Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley in Don Quixote – photo by Kate Longley

Review: Paul Selar