A Balanchine classic meets petite post-classical works in this portmanteau production by the Australian Ballet
Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn ends with his famous, and famously troubling, assertion that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”. It’s a high romantic ideal that even he probably didn’t intend for us to take at face value. After all, plenty of beautiful things are false and plenty of truths are less than beautiful. In context, expressed as it is by a cold, unchanging piece of antiquity, it strikes us as impossibly exalted and remote. Classical ballet can often come across as exalted and remote, as fixed and uncompromising as Keats’s urn. It’s fascinating, therefore, to view Australian Ballet’s new collection of works, titled after its final piece Symphony in C, as a complex series of arguments and counter-arguments on the subject of beauty and its relationship with truth.
The night opens with an image that could be said to define the concept of romanticism, at least as far as it has come to be understood. Richard House’s From Silence begins in silence, with a dancer (Amanda McGuigan) faced away from the audience, trailing an extravagantly billowing, almost fecund, red dress and undulating her arms like a swan. As Michael Nyman’s spare, evocative music begins, she is lifted up by an unseen male dancer (Nathan Brook) in a simple but beautiful image of dedication. The piece oscillates magnificently between the fairytale romance of love and the heartrending distance that lies under the surface of human connection.
This piece is followed by its opposite in virtually every way conceivable: a reproduction of work by Viktor Gsovsky, it is little more than an exercise in technique. Grand Pas Classique is expertly danced by Lana Jones and Brodie James, but it’s also a passionless, rigid exercise in classicism. Lacking context, emotional and narrative intention, it’s like watching a tenor and a soprano practising scales, and serves only to highlight the power of the remaining pieces.
Stephen Baynes’s Pas de Trois, which follows, is far more moving and expressive with its Art Deco design and Hollywood Golden Age lighting. It’s a little sexless – Robyn Hendricks suggests Minerva, with the two men coming across as decorative cherubim rather than passionate lovers – but it has plenty of grace and elegance. This is followed by Little Atlas, the first main stage work choreographed by Corps de Ballet member Alice Topp, and the most thrilling of the night. Topp describes the piece as a rumination on memory, and while it does have a mournful, plaintive quality, it’s also immediate and urgent. There’s a sense of movement rushing forward only to pause and hover, before resolving into exquisite tableaux. It’s achingly more than elegantly beautiful, and gorgeously designed by Jon Buswell.
Act I concludes with another about-face: Diana and Actéon Pas de Deux is a standard piece of showmanship created by Agrippina Vaganova in 1935, excising the more interesting parts of the myth in order to showcase a dance partnership. It’s pure classicism, eulogising ancient culture for the sake of it, but it does result in an breathtaking technical display by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Last seen together in Sleeping Beauty, this pair are well on their way to legendary status, and their dancing here is sublime. Guo in particular is astonishing.
Act II is taken up with the titular piece, George Balanchine’s seriously lovely Symphony in C. The kind of work that defines and perfects the achievements of the 19th century – with the joys of the pas de deux, the clean lines of the corps and the muscularity of individual showcases all married to exquisite music by Bizet– it works best now with a very light touch. Thankfully, this rendition is as airy and blithe as you could hope for, and makes for a beautiful apotheosis to the various pieces that precede.
The whole production is fascinating in this regard. It’s like watching a battle between historical artistic movements, with the dancers cast as extras in a war of aesthetics. As much as the classicism impresses – with its grand and formalistic gestures, its undeniable beauty – it’s the romanticism that wins out. Given that the two most thrilling, most truthful, pieces are choreographed by the rookies from the corps, young artists with incredibly promising careers ahead of them, it stands as a repudiation of Keats’s assertion, not to mention a formidable argument for the ongoing relevance of the art form.
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