Beyond 40 Ballet Blokes

(Australian Ballet)


http:\stagediary.comshows2002mayimagesbeyond40.jpg     http:\stagediary.comshows2002mayimagesballetblokes.jpg

An entertaining overview of the Australian Ballet’s first 40 years, Beyond 40 features splendid displays of choreographic and dance highlights intercut with historic film footage of the company’s work.

Not entirely resisting the understandable urge to be self-satisfied and hagiographic, the show gives a good sample of the company’s achievements and a sense of its future directions.

While 40 years may not seem so long ago, the use of film from the ’60s and ’70s (captions to identify some of the speakers and settings would help) illustrates how much Australian culture has changed. The very Anglo looking AB, despite proclaiming itself Australian, has morphed into a genuinely Aussie product by the time of its 40th birthday. Accents that were either English or an Australian attempt to sound English were the norm at the AB’s birth, while the dancers conducted themselves with a certain primness and self-consciousness which looks somewhat comical today. (How will 2002 look in 2042 one wonders?) To an extent this style is captured in some of the re-presentations of older hits by the AB’s current dancers.

The audience is treated to some cheer-rousing displays, including the magnificent “Grand Pas” from Don Quixote created by Nureyev, and danced splendidly by Nigel Burley and Rachel Rawlins. Also to attract rousing cheers is three-months pregnant former Brisbane girl Lisa Bolte dancing her own swansong (temporary, one hopes) in a Swan Lake pas de deux (choreographed by Anne Woolliams) in which she is partnered by the superb Steven Heathcote. Also memorable is the vigorous dancing of the corps, such as in their airborne work in Ronald Hynd’s choreography of the Merry Widow waltz to Lehar’s music. There’s the odd mishap, easily forgiven.

Contemporary styles are well represented with Stephen Page’s “Alchemy”, contrasting with earlier attempts to be avante garde like the mechanistic “Checkmate” of Ninette de Valois. But holding up well is Glen Tetley’s intriguing “Gemini”, danced by Rachel Rawlins and Tristan Message to challenging music by Henze. Most entertaining is Meryl Tankard’s “The Deep End”, a marvellous representation of the Australian swimming (and swimsuits), where both company and audience really enjoy themselves.

The other offering of the Australian Ballet’s Brisbane tour, Ballet Blokes, is a richly entertaining trio. The first, Stephen Baynes’ 1990 work Catalyst, features varied and imaginative (if not really emotionally absorbing) interplay between dancers to the brilliant piano music of Poulenc. The second, the premiere of Stephen Page’s one-dancer show, Totem, is dedicated to and superbly performed by Steven Heathcote. To haunting indigenous instrumental and voice music by David Page and Steve Francis, it involves stages in a life’s passage. Heathcote’s anchoring of his body in the earth and his adoption of extraordinary shapes, plus striking lighting design (like a swinging above-stage spotlight) and captivating sound are memorable aspects of a work much appreciated by the audience.

Ballet Blokes‘s main work is Robert Ray’s version of The Sentimental Bloke, based on the musical of Albert Arlen which is of course based on C.J. Dennis’s famous poems. Sets and costumes are brilliant in depicting a variety of scenes including Victoria Markets, Spadgers Lane, the pickle factory, the beach and Flemington racecourse. The AB corps and principals portray the romancing of Doreen (a most graceful Simone Goldsmith) by Bill (a manly Campbell McKenzie) in the midst of various distractions. Adrian Burnett is a suitably unctuous Mr Smithers, although no manager of a pickle factory could ever have had such a workforce of pretty maidens on whom to inflict his charms.

Marc Cassidy and Camilla Vergotis as Ginger Mick and Rose give a fine comic performance, and the whole company interact charmingly in presenting many magnificent scenes, including St Kilda Beach and the Melbourne Cup, with a lot of entertaining cameo performances. Special mention must go to the Romeo and Juliet sequence, one of the highlights of Dennis’s poem: Ray’s approach is to have R&J danced by seemingly amateurish dancers to cruelly out-of-tune Tchaikowsky’s music, in a splendid send-up of amateur theatrics.

The musical score is very successful, drawing largely on Arlen’s musical version, with hints of other late 19th Century-early 20th Century music. (In the beach scene, for example, I picked up in close sequence a few bars from Kern’s “All the things you are”, “I do like to be beside the seaside”, and Sullivan’s “The flowers that bloom in the spring tra-la”.) Apart from looking far too elegant to be the roughs and toughs of 1913 Melbourne, the whole cast put on a splendid show, demonstrating great dancing and comic talent, with superb backing from the Queensland Orchestra.


— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Thu 2nd May 2002)