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The Australian Ballet present VANGUARD in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

VANGUARD is a triple bill of contemporary dance presented by the Australian Ballet. THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS (1946), choreography by George Balanchine. BELLA FIGURA (1995), choreography by Jiri Kylian. DYAD 1929 (2009), choreography by Wayne McGregor. I love attending dance programs and have no real, no deep knowledge of the form, except as an ardent admirer for a very long time. All the three ballets in this VANGUARD program were/are game changing icons in the dance world, so they tell me.

THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS by George Balanchine is danced to a specially commissioned musical score by Paul Hindemith. Balanchine after a Russian training worked with Diaghilev and then moved to the United States at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein and together in 1933 founded the School of American Ballet (SAB), and after several other manifestations became the New York City Ballet in 1948. His repertoire covered many other genres of theatre: opera, musical theatre, and included dance sequences for television and film, as well. Jazz had a profound influence on him. His evolving style throughout a long creative career, was essentially an appreciation of the aesthetic of the body’s journey through space. The work is highly athletic with an emphasis on speed and line. The dancers he preferred to work with were very long and lean, emphasised by his penchant to present work in simple costume, his works became popularly known as “leotard ballets”.

SERENADE (1946); SYMPHONY IN C/LE PALAIS DE CRISTAL(1947); AGON (1957); JEWELS (1967) are works that I remember well by Balanchine. Both, at the New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet I have always been struck by, what seemed to me, the very particular physical type that the Balanchine works required to succeed aesthetically. It was always the long body, arms and legs that seemed to create the best, the most pleasing effect/affect. The Paris Opera/Ballet, similarly, cast that spell of aesthetic length when I saw their performances of JEWELS (I also have a compact disc version) and was rewarding.

I saw the 84th performance of THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, a Saturday afternoon, and was vaguely disappointed with the work. I do not know if the Australian Ballet, although famous for its athleticism, have the co-hort of the ideal physical type to make a consistent impression in this choreographer’s work. The dancers that do have the ideal physical type, simply contrasted the lack of line and movement of the others.

Eve Lawson was the Repetiteur working in re-creating this work on the Australian Ballet. THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS is subtitled “A Dance Without Plot”. It is a dance that celebrates beautiful movement. It takes its inspiration from the expression of the Ancient Greek humours: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric in five musical movements. Neither the music or the dance itself make specific or literal interpretation of the idea. This performance by the Australian Ballet was workmanlike and underwhelming in its consistent creation and projection of the aesthetic possibilities of this work and Georges Balanchine in general. Hugely disappointing.

The Australian Ballet company seemed to be more at ease and confident with BELLA FIGURA, its 79th performance, choreographed by Jiri Kylian and set for these performances by Elke Schepers, one of the original dancers on whom the work was created in 1995. Kylian worked for 36 years with the Nederlands Dance Company and has left his repertoire and stamp” on the visual quality of that company’s output. (The Company is visiting Sydney next month). Bella Figura means beautiful movement. Mr Kylian was in pursuit of asking with this work: What is beautiful, what is ugly? What is dancing, what is not? What is acting, what is not? The tension between those concepts is the driving curiosity of the work.

It begins on an open stage and we see the dancers chatting, moving, limbering up etc. Are the company performing then or not? This work is sublimely beautiful with music from Lukas Foss, Marcello, Vivaldi, Torelli, and Pergolesi. How gorgeous to have live voices in the pit spinning a web of sound to haul us into the world of the ballet: Janet Todd and Margaret Trubiano. The setting is designed by Kylian and he has ‘choreographed’ the curtaining as well: rising, falling, crossing and creating apertures – opening and closing – to entrance and facilitate the focus of the audience and the dancers’ entry/exits – is there meaning in these choices? we are provoked! The whole of the choreographic movements/dance and design is an ecstatic set of sophisticated offers with costume surprises and delights (Joke Visser), beautifully lit (Kees Tjebbes) to give the work a warming antique glow, an almost mythic beauty, quality. One is subjectively traduced by the beauty of it all – sight and sound – but, also, objectively, intellectually teased with the organising of the crafted, staged images.This is the third time I have seen this work and its spell was still potent, mesmerizing. I discovered new visuals and longed for it to be longer, or repeated. It is a vertiginous visual well that one can tumble a long time in, in contemplation of, afterwards.

The work stirs the appetite to see it again and again.

DYAD 1929 was choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 2009 as part of the CONCORD program by Wayne McGregor that was completing the Australian Ballet’s four-year Ballet Russes project. DYAD 1929 was created with a deliberate sense of the “shock of the new” that the Ballet Russes had had on its status quo.

This was the 54th performance of the work which is a thrilling, busy and demanding one of movement ensemble. It is spiky, quirky and very, very modern. It requires a very dynamic effort/style and ranges “from smooth to sharp to quick to slow”. I am pleased to acknowledge that this company of dancers have assimilated the challenge of the forms that was not so apparent in the first season of the work (see the above link).

The music by Steve Reich: Double Sextet sets a crackling sound aura of modernity and the design image of a white curtain and flooring lined with black dots tracking out to the auditorium (Wayne McGregor and Lucy Carter), with costume inspired by the visual adventures of the avant garde artists of the 1920’s -30’s speak both of then and now. There is no story, there is no specific theme, no matter the intellectual inspiration of the work, quoted in the program. Mr McGregor declares: “The movement is the message”. This was delivered. Wayne McGregor is the artistic director of Wayne McGregor/ Random Dance, Resident Company at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, and resident choreographer of the Ballet Royal (appointed in 2006) – a dynamic influence for now and the future of dance, I reckon.

Overall, I was satisfied with the experience of VANGUARD if not completely content. The experience was rewarding, ($169 a ticket), mostly, if not life changing. GISELLE given by the Paris Opera Ballet was that, life changing, and the cost became immaterial to the aesthetic rewards. I would have paid again, if I had the wherewithal. All those dancers from the Paris Opera were immaculate and inspirational in their aesthetics and, buried, disciplines, at every level of responsibility. This was not a quality always true with the company revealed on my Saturday afternoon matinee by the Australian Ballet. Disciplines of technique were not always secure, so aesthetic pleasure was sometimes marred – hence, satisfied, if not content. Perhaps, I need to see the company at Opening nights to see the quality I read about in the press? Is the depth of talent/experience so thin? Just avoid Saturday matinees? Really?

Gary Stewart from Australia Dance Theatre (ADT) is creating a work for the Canberra Centenary Celebrations on the Australian Ballet. Can’t wait!! Imagine Stewart and McGregor in the same program! Add, Alexi Ratmansky, perhaps. Now, there is a possible shock of the new for us all – a triple bill to blow the company into the new millennium, without doubt.

P.S. The Australian Ballet program is top quality and worth every penny. Others ought to take note.