Frederick Ashton’s ballet The Dream was of course the inspiration for the Australian Ballet’s triple bill. But it was Ashton the choreographer whose work was celebrated in this program with ballets that showed Ashton’s own dream for a distinctive choreography for his time and place.
The Australian Ballet did well to begin with an abstract work that nevertheless showed the purity of line and importance of corps work that was central to Ashton’s vision. Although the works were not strictly in time sequence they allowed a slow revelation of Ashton’s choreography. First came Monotones ll (1965), with music by Eric Satie, arranged by Debussy and Roland-Manuel, featuring three stark figures in white, their costumes reminiscent of spacesuits or hospital garb! Dancers Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright conveyed a feeling of languor, at times almost trance-like, even through the more energetic jetes and lifts as the piece progressed.
The ballet was over all too soon, but was followed by an expanded work in the form of Symphonic Variations, this time for six dancers (Natasha Kusch, Cristiano Martino, Dimity Azoury, Brett Chynoweth, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson). Although a much earlier work (1946) this was already signature Ashton, and may have owed something of its early success to the dancers associated with it: among them Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes and Moira Shearer. This time, the all-white look seemed to owe more to classical Greek than contemporary inspiration. The dancers of the Australian Ballet excel at this kind of corps work. There were some particularly lovely moments as in several solos, and a pas de deux with a beautiful lightness. Music was by Cesar Frank from a work that lent its name to the ballet. Pianist Stuart Macklin gave a beautifully sympathetic performance which could have stood on a concert platform of its own.
By now there was eager anticipation of the main work, especially as it would be fair to say that it was the story ballet of the title that had attracted most of the audience. The Dream is of course based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and features Mendelssohn’s incidental music for that play. It was Orchestra Victoria with conductor Nicolette Fraillon that first attracted enthusiastic attention, with a fine performance of the lovely overture from the delicate winds to the stirring burst of sound that introduced the dancers.
Also worthy of mention were the mellifluous voices of members of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir (prepared by Andrew Wailes) to further the illusion that things were going well in Fairyland.
The set was suitably Romantic and the pretty fairy costumes matched expectations. Literally a dream team, Madeleine Eastoe as Titania and Kevin Jackson (Oberon) lent an air of reality to proceedings as the royals appeared to be having a marital spat concerning a child (not their own, but an Indian boy, for some obscure reason). Eastoe lent grace to the proceedings while Jackson was the perfect Ashton hero, showing both a fluidity of movement and strength in good measure.
This was the last moment of “reality” however, as the ballet faithfully conveyed the fairy story of love and mischief stirred up by the mischievous Puck, (perfect casting with the energetic and, at times, brilliant Chengwu Guo). The “rustic” Bottom was even more fun than usual, thanks to Joseph Chapman’s realistic ass-like interpretation. Having the dancer en pointe was a clever device that enhanced the image of his getting around on hooves!
All the drama was sorted out of course and heralded by the famous Wedding March, but not before we had been treated to a wonderful display of dancing that made the most of Frederick Ashton’s choreography. We left with a far greater understanding of why his name is among the all-time greats of the ballet world.
Picture: Madeleine Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom. Photography by Daniel Boud