"Les Présages," "Rites"
The Australian Ballet
Sadler's Wells Theatre
7-11 October, 2008
by Judith Cruickshank
copyright 2008 by Judith Cruickshank
Nobody could accuse the Australian Ballet's artistic director David McAllister of timid programming for overseas tours. Sure, the company brought "Swan Lake" when it visited the London Coliseum a few years ago and it's also being shown in Manchester on this trip.
But we are not talking about the Petipa/Ivanov version currently being given by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. This is Graeme Murphy's radical re-working of both story and choreography. And for this fleeting visit to Sadler's Wells, McAllister chose to bring a historic revival and a work which draws on Australia's own ancient aboriginal culture.
"Les Présages" was revived for the company by Tatiana Leskova and there was also some input by the late Irina Baronova who created the role of one of the lovers in the second movement. Présages is important not just because it was the first of Leonid Massine's symphonic ballets but also because, shown on Ballet Russes tours to Australia, it helped to sow the seeds of classical dance in that continent.
Nowadays its themes and characters might seem a little overblown; “man's struggle with his destiny” isn't a phrase which comes easily to the lips in 2008, but the Australians dance the ballet with total conviction. And I wonder if Massine ever dreamed he would have such an amazing male corps de ballet. Such energy, such high, bounding jumps and such clean, classical dancing. The women have perhaps less spectacular entries, but are equally impressive.
The corps plays such a major part in "Présages" that it's right to begin any review with them, and Massine uses them so well, skillfully manipulating their groups so that there is constant interest but without detracting from the principals. These all merited the high level of support they were given and I especially admired Danielle Rowe as Action, and among the men, both Daniel Gaudiello and Adam Bull – this latter displaying positively Soviet-style heroics in the last movement.
For these performances the Australians used Toer van Schayk's adaptations of André Masson's designs made for the Dutch National Ballet. These are infinitely more acceptable to 21st century eyes than the originals, but it's still hard to suppress a giggle at Destiny's black lipstick.
Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony was well played by the orchestra under the baton of the company's music director, Nicolette Fraillon. It was altogether a highly worthwhile revival, demonstrating not just the high technical and dramatic standards of the Australian Ballet's dancers, but also a reminder of just how skilled and pioneering a dance maker Massine was.
His ballets are rarely performed these days but his handling of the corps de ballet at least could provide more than a few lessons for today's aspiring choreographers. And the symphonic ballets could prove easier to cast than some of the other works which need the kind of virtuoso demi-caractère dancer in short supply today.
Curiously, although "Présages" is listed in the Chronology of Significant Events in Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, he fails to include a description of it.
The other work on the programme was "Rites", a collaboration between the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre, which bases its work on aboriginal dance and culture. "Rites" was choreographed by Bangarra's artistic director Stephen Page to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," but he has chosen to ignore the original scenario in favour of brief scenes representing the four elements.
I have to say that from the outset I find this a problem since Stravinsky's score seems to me to be so clearly programmatic that by ignoring the original theme Page shoots himself in the foot. Not a good start for a choreographer.
The four scenes are theatrically staged; we have men holding smoking vessels; a goddess figure in silvery blue; another man being ritually anointed with either pigment or blood and finally the women being doused with liquid in a kind of mass baptism. But although a mixed cast from the two companies gave it their best shot, for me it failed to ring true and certainly did not carry the conviction or the drama of Pina Bausch's ballet to the same score, shown at Sadler's Wells earlier this year.
Olivia Bell and Adam Bull in "Les Presages." Photo Jim McFarlane.
"Rites." Photo: Jean-Francois Campos