I went to see the English National Ballet in Chatswood for two reasons: to see Apollo (Stravinsky/Balanchine) and to check out The Concourse, only recently opened.
I was pretty certain I’d never seen Apollo before. But a check of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire history suggests that I might have seen it, around the time I was at uni. There are all sorts of explanations for that: a missed performance, the ballet may have been offered in Melbourne but not Sydney (the repertoire history gives only the date of first performance), and so on. Anyway, I was effectively seeing it for the first time.
Recently the Australian Ballet quoted me in a program book as saying that ballet was “music made visible”. Not an original observation by any stretch; still I was rather chuffed. And if any choreographer exemplifies the idea of music made visible in dance it’s Balanchine. This is the man who said that if he weren’t a choreographer, he “would not be anything, probably. Perhaps a musician.” In the ballet, Apollo’s favoured muse is, naturally, Terpsichore, music of the dance, but she carries as her symbol a lyre, a musical instrument. Balanchine is the kind of choreographer who asks you to listen to the ballet and see the music.
Which is why you can’t see Apollo and imagine it being danced to any other score – unlike the work at the other end of the triple bill: Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to music from Lalo’s Namouna. (Flautists who’ve studied their orchestral excerpts will know the particularly taxing number from towards the end.) Suite en blanc is one of those company showcase pieces in the tradition of Pas de Quatre, created for Taglioni and three other leading 19th-century ballerinas. The effect is numbingly generic, even when beautifully executed and the ballet hasn’t aged particularly well.
And yet Apollo was premiered in 1928, Suite en blanc in 1943. Apollo, however, is the ballet that still seems fresh today and remains a delight to watch. Choreographic originality is a big aspect of that. And there’s no denying that Apollo has the better music.
In the middle: a selection of three pas de deux: Hans van Manen’s piece to Satie’s Trois Gnossienes (with the piano and its player on stage) was new to me and a real treat. The Manon pas de deux was the bedroom scene, in which Manon interrupts Des Grieux from his letter writing. I was slightly disappointed: for musical reasons my favourite is the pas de deux from, if I recall correctly, earlier in Act I – the one that uses Massenet’s Elégie. (Flautists who’ve worked from Marcel Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation will know this gorgeous, haunting melody.)
The fireworks came in the form of the Black Swan pas de deux from Act III Swan Lake, the one with the 32 fouette pirouettes ,which we of course applaud.* While it’s fun to see something like this performed as a showpiece, like any bleeding chunk you lose a lot in the context. Where are the courtiers? The other potential brides? Siegfried’s mother? And where’s Rothbart, coaching his daughter Odile from the back corner of the stage and providing the explanation for her sudden shift from coldly imperious to tender and vulnerable with the trademark fluttering ‘swan arms’.
The ‘live orchestra’ of the publicity turned out to be a scaled-back Willoughby Symphony Orchestra (strings: 18.104.22.168.1) led by Sophie Rowell and performing in a smidgin of a pit. They acquitted themselves well in Apollo, which may well have received the most rehearsal.
My thoughts on the Concourse Theatre? This is a small space seating about 500. I can imagine it working very well for drama and for small-scale musical theatre, but it felt wrong for ballet – too small both literally and psychologically. Ballet will never be an intimate art form. Perhaps that’s partly due to its origins in court display, partly to its physicality and partly to the supreme level of artifice involved – you need a certain ‘distance’ as an audience member to enjoy its spectacle and the dancers need a certain amount of space in order to do their thing and sustain the magic. Seeing ballet in this intimate space made me feel like I was seeing a provincial tour. (Not helped by some fairly basic lighting and creaky stage furniture.) It brought to mind the kind of scene you get in The Red Shoes when the undiscovered Moira Shearer is dancing in a suburban town hall, and backstage someone is dropping the needle on the next record. Of course, we know Moira Shearer is a star, and so are these dancers. But I’d rather see them in London’s Coliseum.
Once again, I envy the ballet world. No hang ups about applause here. It’s very simple: if the dancers take a bow (or if the music makes a definitive pause for a change of scene) it’s a cue to applaud; if somebody does something overtly impressive then a smattering of applause mid-variation (as in a jazz club) is just fine, if you wish. Some ballets are more applause-inducing than others and it seems there’s very little confusion about which is which. No one glares at anyone. Although I was mentally glaring at the couple of ladies behind me: beautifully quiet during the neoclassical and abstract works, the minute they got the “more passionate” ballets they’d been waiting for they started in with the whispered commentary. Ssssigh.
Not fond at all of foyer music during interval – live or piped. Especially in any performance involving music, the interval is a time for rest and creating a fresh mental space.