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Imperial Suite review (Sydney Opera House)


After its leap towards innovation with the triple bill, Chroma, the Australian Ballet opens now a week later in Sydney with a double bill of more neo-classical fare. Imperial Suite, which also moves to Melbourne next month, features works from the 1940s by George Balanchine and Serge Lifar.

Both choreographers were émigrés, Balanchine from Tsarist Russia and Lifar from a Ukraine struggling even then for independence. Both reforged 19th Century ballet conventions learnt from their childhood with new influences gained in the West.

Lifar fell in turbulent love with Diaghilev and through the 1920s danced with his famed Ballet Russes. When the entrepreneur died, Lifar joined the Paris Opera Ballet as ballet director where he remained for decades. In 1981 the old man actually visited here to oversee the Australian Ballet staging his most celebrated work, Suite en blanc. That visit created a fine long thread of cultural connections. In this game of balletic perfectionism, the critical test is whether in the work’s restaging this week the thread has frayed.

Balanchine went west to America. Ballet Imperial was his homage to a Tsarist classical vocabulary but peppered with modern artistic influences under the Bolsheviks and in the new world. Ballet Imperial premiered in Rio, ironically, a work funded to tour southern American republics as a tool of US soft diplomacy.

Rigorously copyrighted and restaged under the George Balanchine Trust, this Ballet Imperial even returns the dancers to an elegant purple and aquamarine livery suggestive of the Tsarist court. All plot of course is abandoned. It’s a series of beautiful divertissements through which, at its deepest, Adam Bull and Lana Jones very expertly pursue their flirtations.

Bull especially is a joy to watch, long-limbed, clean of line and expressive in both face and gesture. Balanchine’s modernity and inventiveness is also apparent. At one such point Bull leads weaving ribbons of dancers from each of his outstretched arms.

Balanchine delights too in streams of dancers scissoring through each other and, in this sea of tutus, creating clashing waves of upstretched arms. The men leap on the point and flutter their feet like over-excited exclamation points! The total effect is joyous and beautiful. As a striving for gymnastic virtuosity delivered within classical aesthetics, Ballet Imperial is impressive. As a vehicle for communicating anything beyond simplistic Romantic myths about human relations, it’s an experience only for the heart, not the head.

Driving the heart though is Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 2 played robustly by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and conductor Nicolette Fraillon. The beauty too is much enhanced by Hoang Pham on piano.

That striving for co-ordinated technical perfectionism was less successful in the second work, Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc.

It is arguably suffused by Lifar’s French influences, notably in his use of ironic wit, which escaped me, and his tendency to play off balance with the lean and positioning of the dancers.

Suite en blanc is even more strictly divided into divertissements of athleticism and show-off moments designed, it seems, to eke out our applause. The lush score of 19th Century composer Edouard Lalo, heavily punctuated with percussion and horns, conspires in this manipulation.

Certainly Daniel Gaudiello is impressive conjuring Nureyev in a circle of high kicking leaps around the stage.   Flame-haired Laura Tong is also distinguished in the so-called Cigarette solo (which former AB head Marina Gielgud famously danced in Paris at the age of 15, coached by LIfar).

Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes nicely guide the work to its conclusion with a charming pas de deux. But these moments are thwarted by the endless, episodic choreographic punctuation for impact in place of any real emotional arc or meaning. The effect is akin to applauding a circus clad all in white.

The famed opening tableau, with all the dancers fabulously arrayed up and down steps, arms upstretched, drew the predictable first applause. Most of Lifar’s French subtleties escaped me here in a work slipping instead the bombastic and grandiloquent.

Dance companies as old as 52 years, like the Australian Ballet, presumably perfect their technical prowess with the passing of every year.  It’s hard to imagine old Lifar being happy with the uneven mastery of his work on show this week in Sydney. Hopefully he liked what he saw in 1981.

Imperial Suite is in Sydney until May 17 and Melbourne from June 20-28. Main image by Jess Bialek. 


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