Dancers – First Lead Couple: Sharni Spencer, Callum Linnane; Second Lead Couple: Valerie Tereshchenko, Mason Lovegrove
Gabriel Fauré – Music (from Pelléas et Mélisande, Shylock)
Dancers – Lead Couple: Ako Kondo, Brett Chynoweth; Soloist: Isabelle Dashwood
Igor Stravinsky – Music (Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra)
Andrew Dunlop (Piano)
Dancers – Lead Couple: Benedicte Bemet, Joseph Caley
Pyotr Tchaikovsky – Music (3rd Symphony minus first movement)
George Balanchine – Choreography
Barbara Karinska – Costumes
Peter Harvey – Set Design
Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Reviewed by: G.J. Dowler
Reviewed: 2 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Opera House
A warm welcome to Australian Ballet in its first visit to Covent Garden in some 35 years. Now under the direction of the former American star dancer David Hallberg, the ensemble is seeking greater international recognition and it was in that spirit that they presented Jewels, George Balanchine’s glittering triptych of abstract ballets in its original set and costume designs, no small ask for any company.
Across the evening, the choreographer pays homage to three schools and styles of classical dance as he saw it; the romantic French, the sassy American and finally the imperial Russian, having selected music to accompany the concept: dreamy Fauré, spiky Stravinsky and expansive Tchaikovsky. On this opening night, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the ballet company’s recently appointed Music Director, Jonathan Lo, himself well-known to British audiences, rose to the occasion with idiomatic playing in all three. Certainly, the Stravinsky packed a musical punch, thanks in no small part to some incisive piano playing from Andrew Dunlop, whereas the pit clearly enjoyed letting loose in the Tchaikovsky.
Australian Ballet is an engaging company whose dancers, based on this performance, exhibit a clean, unfussy technique, devoid of mannerisms or exaggerations. There is clear technical strength and the corps de ballet and supporting soloists (alas un-named) were admirable for their cohesion both in terms of musicality and in observing the inflexions of head and upper body as demanded by Balanchine – his leg and footwork is often so challenging that they are easy to forget.
Their dancing is neat and focussed, and there is a pleasing fluidity in the arms. Where perhaps more is needed is in projection to the audience and allowing individual personalities to develop and shine. This was particularly noticeable in Emeralds, the most difficult of the three ballets in which to convince – it can seem remote and over-cool – and on which a glassy sheen can descend. Sharni Spencer stood out in the First Lead Couple with particularly pleasing épaulement and a deeply lyrical quality to her movements. Able dancers as they were, none of the other artists managed to break through the anonymity this exercise in dreamy, many would say sleepy, choreography. The Faurédoes not help and both Lo and his orchestra could not escape its soporific nature.
Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra would be a difficult piece to sleep through in itself, but clearly it inspired Balanchine to sassy, all-American heights of invention in Rubies. It certainly is all-American in feel, or, more strictly speaking, all-New York with its musical jazz inflections and the inclusion of skipping, riding and even prancing, Rockette-style movement. It is spiky and unrelenting, full of attitude and self-confidence, and needs dancers bursting with charisma and sass; the Australians are not quite there yet, even if most clearly relished the hip thrusts and in-your-face movements. Looking splendid in the original designs – sparkling ruby-red costumes against a black backcloth studded with glittering red mirrors – the ballet is perhaps the most satisfying of the three ‘jewels’ of the evening. While far more personality was needed in the solo female role – one remembers Alexandra Ansanelli (ex-New York City Ballet) who was sensational at Covent Garden some years back – there were few quibbles with the central couple, who launched into Balanchine’s feisty choreography with real gusto. Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth worked extremely well together and nailed all the tricky demands, but that final degree of snap and showbiz pizzazz which the parts can accommodate and, indeed, give them life, was largely absent; they were. Perhaps, a little too ‘balletic’.
The most satisfying performance of the evening was that of Diamonds, the choreographer’s tribute to the Russian danse d’école and the great works of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. It is one of Balanchine’s great classical show-off ballets, alongside Symphony in C, Theme and Variations and Ballet Imperial, but it lacks their focus and cohesion. That said, it does work, and Australian Ballet showed that a key to its successful presentation is not to over-egg the choreography, rather let it speak for itself. This was a beautiful performance, finely judged and expertly danced; special mention to the four un-named female soloists who play such a major part in the third section (Tchaikovsky’s fourth movement Scherzo).
Leading the company were Benedicte Bemet and Joseph Caley who brought the right degree of insouciant, unflappable grandeur to their dancing and make for a very pleasing and complementary stage pairing. British principal Caley danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet for many years before moving to English National Ballet and has recently joined Australian; his technique is firm and unforced, and he cuts an understated elegant figure on stage while remaining fully in command of the manifold demands of the choreography. His partnering was secure, courteous, and unobtrusive, affording Bemet full confidence. Bemet too never forced anything for effect and embodied the ideal of the slightly distant classical ballerina that Balanchine projected onto his then muse, Suzanne Farrell. Bemet’s musicality was notable, allowing her to shade between her movements and to let the choreography breathe; she made the overlong central pas de deux into a vision of classical purity, while the third and fourth sections saw her unleash impressive but never over-showy virtuosity. This was a notable assumption of a very difficult role; while Caley is a familiar dancer one was delighted to see again, Bemet is an unfamiliar artist one longs to see again.