It’s Twilight Time With the Australian Ballet

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At the Edge of Night. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The Edge of Night
Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 13 November 2010, 7:30 pm
continues until 29 November 2010

At the Edge of Night
Choreography – Stephen Baynes
Music – Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano – Stuart Macklin
Set and costume design – Michael Pearce
Lighting design – Stephen Wickham
reproduced by John Berrett

Olivia Bell
Damien Welch
Lana Jones
Juliet Burnett
Laura Tong
Stephanie Williams
Jarryd Madden
Andrew Killian
Ty King-Wall
Rudy Hawkes

Choreography – Tim Harbour
Music – Gerard Brophy
Costume design – Alexis George
Stage concept and lighting design – Bluebottle

Halcyon – Madeleine Eastoe
Ceyx – Ty King-Wall
Zeus – Kevin Jackson
Hera – Amy Harris

Molto Vivace
Choreography – Stephen Baynes
Music – George Frideric Handel
Costume design – Anna French
Set design – Richard Roberts
Lighting – Rachel Burke
reproduced by John Berrett

Lead cupids – Daniel Gaudiello, Gina Brescianini
Deputy cupids – Brett Chynoweth, Dana Stephensen
A lady – Leanne Stojmenov
Her suitors – Andrew Killian, Jacob Sofer

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Tom Woods

The Australian Ballet presents three short recent ballets which would seem at the surface to have nothing in common. In At the Edge of Night, first performed in 1997, but last performed 11 years ago, Stephen Baynes sets an impressionist ballet to seven preludes by Rachmaninov. The choreography, set design and costumes share the sensibility of the music, rolling subtly between nostalgia, longing, pining, contemplation, mild remorse, occasionally melancholy, ambivalence, poignant joy and other emotions only the piano can give a name. The brand new ballet, Halcyon by Tim Harbour, sets the Greek myth of Halcyon and Ceyx to dance with original music by Gerard Brophy. It is a particularly relevant myth about love oppressed by religion. The last ballet is Molto Vivace again by Stephen Baynes, first performed in 2003, but completely different in tone. It sets a light-hearted rococo comedy to Handel. All three are liminal, either touching, delving or diving into where phases change. We meet frontiers either as precise as the sea’s surface, or as blurred as half conscious memories, or as completely black and mysterious as that between life and death and the other.

At the Edge of Night begins in silence with the curtain rising on a woman in a long crimson-wine coloured velvet dress with a subtle pattern in a slightly lighter shade of red, sitting upright in a stiff wooden chair. Well, it would have been silent but for the egregious chatting and rustling in the audience, which went on sporadically throughout the evening (it mostly seemed to be grown ups making noise — the younger people seemed to be concentrating totally). Rachmaninov’s preludes float out from nowhere and four couples enter and dance with one another. The Opera House’s sometimes murky acoustics are used to advantage here as the piano, presumably in the deep low orchestra pit, takes on a distant, drawn and strained sound. A yellowish lighting suggests magic hour, neither day nor evening. The set has an overall urban feel — a stylised streetscape. There are shades of grey with few bright colours, and doors and windows in the back through which the characters enter and leave when they go home at the end of the night. The men wear suits or slacks and a shirt or sweater and the women wear simple cotton dresses in mousy yellows and blues, inexpensive but elegant and attractive. Designer Michael Pearce mentions Magritte and Man Ray in the program in association with his ideas for his design, and the shadowy images in this ballet have a sensibility not so far removed from Ray’s.

Man Ray, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows. © 2010 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The couples’ steps in this first scene seem quite simple with the men turning and swinging their partners in a gentle 1940s or ’50s style, but they form complicated patterns as they interweave across the stage. At first the woman in red velvet seems to be left out of the dancing and without a partner and walks across the stage in a reverie but not completely aloof from the others. They part around her as they dance. Later after the couples have kissed good night and left, one of the men who is left behind dances with the woman in red velvet, before they too leave the stage.

Another section of the ballet features three of the men alone, with a galloping prelude (I believe it’s the g minor Opus 23 no. 5: Alla marcia) which is arguably one of the more masculine preludes, or at least its rhythm allows more time for high jumps to return to earth. Though they dance mostly in unison, they each have different individual styles — one very strong and deliberate; one a more floating, plastic masculine grace; and one something in between with a strong presence and an earthy grace. Without their partners they leap and turn and come as close to frolicking as we ever see in this ballet.

Another prelude has on of the young women seated in a swing, swinging gently in time to the music. She comes down to join her partner and the woman in red velvet eventually appears in the swing. As before, the man seems divided, but there is no strong feeling of contention or jealousy. Later the woman dances with another man, at first while still seated: he turns her on the chair on one leg then lifts it. She rises to balance precariously on the back of the chair with his support. She is then lifted off and they dance a beautiful, flowing pas de deux. The fat, rich Rachmaninov chords do not mark climaxes in the dance in any conventional sense, but see the woman seating herself in the chair again or lowering herself from his arms to lie on the ground, as if overcome. In this way, Baynes interpretation of the complicated harmonies for his choreography is interesting and unconventional; for another example, arabesques in the first dance are small and brief marking not a culmination at the end of a phrase but an intermediate shape which flows with the steps before and after. All the dancers’ steps flowed very smoothly and naturally together.

Stephen Baynes’ strong sense and love for this music comes across clearly and the freshness and purity of a ballet set to a solo piano is very satisfying. Perhaps it is an homage to war time when orchestras weren’t to be had and companies like Sadler’s Wells danced to pianos. Stuart Macklin had a strong feel for the music too and played very sensitively, on the slow side with some rubato, though maybe not as freely with the tempo as in a solo recital. This is not a criticism, on the contrary, maybe the music was even improved from the discipline required in sharing it with the dancers. He played the music with a strong pulse which gave the ballet momentum and the sense it was telling a story. Although there is no libretto for this ballet it feels as if one (or maybe several at once) do exist, if only a slippery ambiguous story in the choreographer’s mind. It has a feel like the involuntary recollection of memories — a seemingly definite memory dragging up a constellation of unrelated ones and associated feelings. Olivia Bell did very well to create a realistic character with her subtle acting. I found myself caring what would happen to her.

Halcyon with Madeleine Eastoe and Ty King-Wall. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The second ballet, Halcyon, opens with the wind goddess en pointe executing a pas de bourrée couru in place. I believe this is a unique first step in a ballet. The small, contained but febrile movement in an otherwise static stage gives the impression anything could happen next, as if the gusty wind does not know which way to blow. The set’s main and only feature is a translucent screen in the back of the stage with a ramp or platform behind suggesting a dimensionless space continuing behind the stage. There is a grey printed pattern on the screen which could be an animal or a hand or the shape of a thing seen just beyond the surface of the sea, either from the air or surface looking below or from below looking up. This screen serves in the ballet as a kind of semi-permeable membrane between two domains: air and water, earth and water, the material and spirit, or life and death.

In the ancient Greek story-telling tradition, the ballet rearranges the myth into an in medias res shape by beginning with Halcyon’s vision of Ceyx’s death. They are each framed by the bodies of the other dancers: one lies on the stage while two stand stock straight holding the rigid body of the fourth above their heads. This image is reflected  in the screen by Ceyx and the other dancers behind.

Later is the lovers’ pas de deux. Halcyon is now barefoot and their dance is intricate with difficult lifts entwining their bodies. When Ceyx seems to tire and lies down, Halcyon rushes over to him, leaning over to caress him, full of concern. Madeleine Eastoe here conveys vividly an alien creature, confused and worried and a little lost as she tries to understand what is happening this other person. Though they are two people deeply in love, they are very much separate and very different beings.

Zeus and Hera, along with his mistresses, then dance. Kevin Jackson and Amy Harris too present the gods as alien, especially Zeus, moving with unconquerable power and strength. Halcyon and Ceyx imitate the gods’ steps but don’t reproduce the same power; they continue to dance with a softness and vulnerability. Perhaps this is because their love is deeper or that Halcyon doesn’t share her man with other lovers as Hera has to. So maybe Zeus and Hera are motivated by envy when they banish Halcyon and Ceyx.

Later when Ceyx is lost at sea dancers wearing a web of translucent, iridescent material between their legs wind around him. A black light brings out a deep limpid violet on this fabric. The webs recall lightning and waves simultaneously as they twirl and wave and might share something with the skirt dance craze of the 1870s or Loie Fuller’s light-and-cloth spectacle in the 1890s. These webs didn’t seem to interfere with the dancers’ movement at all, though they didn’t release quite as effectively in the cartwheels, so perhaps a small adjustment is needed.

When Halcyon runs on stage to save Ceyx, she wears a long cape of a similar fabric to the webs, her train carried by two others. The spot pattern on the cloth suggests peacocks as much as the kingfishers mentioned in the original myth. The revived Ceyx follows her through the screen to give the ballet its happy apotheosis: the fugitive lovers escape the oppression of their gods.

This ballet I think will endure. Its choreography is expressive and absorbing and the story of love attracting two very different people and more powerful outside forces interfering with them is universal and relevant today. It is a story worth exploring, at least for the next few hundred years until humanity has learned. The ballet also provides a lot of possibility for different interpretations and a generous amount for future performers to chew. It is also wonderful to see the company commissioning new music for a new work. Gerard Brophy’s score alternates between recorded electronic and orchestral music, the electronic mostly being slightly distorted voices singing chords without words and the orchestral sometimes middle eastern and sometimes quite romantic in style, which, I thought, verged on the repetitive and sentimental on occasion. Personally I find electronic music played over loudspeakers doesn’t work nearly as well as real instruments for dance and having the two next to each other creates too abrupt a change in sound quality, pulling me from the ballet’s created world. The lighting and staging by Bluebottle was very eery and otherworldly and the restrained use of black light worked well. At one point when the gods were dancing I found the lighting got overcomplicated, for example when the wings were lit successively front to back with a bright spotlight. I found this distracting and a fair amount of light reflect back into the audience lighting up the rows of heads, which pushed me back into the theatre for this scene. Despite these few problems which are slight for a completely new work, I hope to see this ballet again in the future as it will age and ripen well.

Molto Vivace. Photo: Jeff Busby.

To end the evening, the Australian Ballet program, as mischievously as the cupid characters in it, a border-line frivolous rococo ballet. Pieces of Handel’s music from Xerxes, Water Music, and various concerti grossi (what a dyspeptic Wagnerite might call “bleeding chunks”) set to a series of episodes where unsupervised cupids push the buttons of courtly couples. Baynes, in collaborating with the designers, found inspiration in the fêtes galantes paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Anna French’s design uses stunning colours, sophisticated in their own way. The costumes were fresh and original: swinging whale-boned dresses with coloured nylons as sleeves and wonderful bright, unadulterated complementary colours: purples, oranges, yellows, turquoise-cyan and magenta, some nearly fluorescent. The Vivace men wore a rich Peter Pan leaf green to set off their partners. The cupids were dressed punk-style: an Elvis pomade and red overalls or suspenders with T shirts for the boys and the girl cupids in red-orange tights with bright red, very short overalls. All this was on Richard Roberts white set and white stage with curly black leaf patterns at the top. Geometric cupboards and doors in the backwall of the stage allowed unconventional exits.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Scène galante dans un parc. © Chambéry, musée des beaux-arts, © Direction des musées de France, 2005.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. La vraie gaieté. Jean-Antoine Watteau. La vraie gaieté. © Direction des musées de France.

In one scene we see the couples trying to dance a slow sarabande, but a cupid inspires a boy to lift his partner, requiring of course more than the socially acceptable hand-only contact. They end up behind the bushes, underclothes flying, as the others looked shocked or peer over the bushes. Another dance has the boys hanging onto silly tail-like ribbons tied to the girls’ backs. They mean to dance an intricate weaving pattern like the cat’s cradle in La Fille Mal Gardée, but one girl’s ribbon spools out too far, tangling up the others who drag her with them off the stage (perhaps poking fun at Graeme Murphy’s style?). Another scene had a boy take a break from his partner to dance with a giantess twice his height (two dancers with the “torso” standing on the shoulders of the “legs”, hidden in the skirts). The original partner comes in and the giant leaves, but his partner storms off in a jealous fit. The lower section of the giant then returns alone, and this violet mound of frippery pursues the boy back and forth across the stage.

It’s healthy for the occasional ballet not to take itself too seriously. I got the feeling at times it went too far with some of the sarabandes, the characters seeming to mock the music as stiff, cold, and obsolete and they seemed to me a little preppy, not that there’s any harm in making fun of preppies, but I don’t think they would appreciate Handel. I felt the more successful parts used not silly acting, but bodies in abstract forms which complemented the costume colours and suggested a more unconventional humour. I did also like the pas de deux in the middle of the ballet, which Leanne Stojmanov danced beautifully and without irony. And the cupids’ dances were wonderful, fey and sprightly — especially Gina Brescianini who danced with irreverence and honest joy and had a bouncy grace. They seemed really to enjoy having their break from Venus.

Jean-Antoine Watteau. L'amour desarmé. © Direction des Musées de France, 1986.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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