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The Belle of the Ball

In his own cabinet of natural curiosities, the Amsterdam-based pharmacist, Albertus Seba (1665–1736), placed exotic plants and corals, birds and butterflies, and slithering snakes alongside shells in fantastical fanned formations to delight the eye. In the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director, David McAllister’s first full-length production and choreographic debut with a staging of Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” it is not hard to surmise that as a long-term former dancer with the company and now at the helm as director for his fifteenth year, McAllister himself has constructed something of his own golden ‘wunderkammer’ with this work. A production replete with gold sprinkling from the ceiling, twinkling chandeliers, round like jellyfish, and greened nymphs that weave in and out like a serpentine vine; a true baroque ‘irregular pearl’ of a ballet, years in the making, and legacy building.

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “The Sleeping Beauty”

Place

State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, September 17 & 22, 2015

Words

Gracia Haby

The Australian Ballet's “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photograph by Jeff Busby

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In McAllister’s 2015Beauty,” treasure is plentiful and I, too, as wily collector, set to furnishing my growing collection of ballet keepsakes and highlights. With their raggedy rat-tails and long white noses that call to mind Seba-worthy conical shells, I will add Carabosse’s quintet of mischief-makers to my wonder chamber. Though I very much doubt guest artist and former principal, the fabulously vengeful, Lynette Wills, as the wronged Carabosse, will spare them without a fight. So, too, the ornate shell-like columns, designed by Gabriela Tylesova, which appear en pointe. Resting on tiny tips, eight columns that in architectural reality could not support a ceiling, but in the transformative world of the theatre (where belief, amongst other things, is defied), twirl upwards with aplomb. This is nature, but with the emphasis on it polished, made fanciful, and presented as a fairy tale. The objective: to unashamedly delight.

And delight it did. I was fortunate to see this new production twice. Once up high in the balcony, and one week after opening night, in the stalls, up so close as to hear the costumes swish and the baubles clack. To memory’s treasure box, both views I’ll add and together make a whole.

Visible only from up high, the Lilac Fairy’s purple floral swirl projected upon the stage, and the hand of dramaturge Lucas Jervies evident. From within my grasp, the magnetic Bluebird and Princess Florine, whose pas de deux allure rendered me a cat set to pounce. Marcus Morelli’s clarinet wings inspired flute-light flight in both Jessica Fyfe (Thursday) and Benedicte Bemet (Tuesday). And as my collection is limitless and broad in its scope, I’ll pop by their feathered sides, the light-of-step fairies: Grace, Joy, Generosity, Temperament, Musicality, and the wisdom of Lilac. Next up, the four suitors: the princes Spanish, Hungarian, English, and Swedish. With their swords aloft, and moustaches waxed, they’ll make a shining, heart-a-fluttering addition. And all before interval! In McAllister’s “Beauty,” act I concludes as Aurora and the kingdom fall into enchanted slumber, leaving acts II and III (also separated by an interval) as two shorter-length gallops. With opulence’s running time whittled back, this “Beauty,” happily feels anything but restrained.

The Sleeping Beauty
The Australian Ballet's gilt finale to David McAllister's “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photograph by Jeff Busby

To my centrepiece of gold, silver, sapphire and diamond, I’m adding both castings of Aurora and her bookworm Prince Désiré. Though there is only one Fabergé-inspired glass egg between them, into my Every Embellishment memory theatre, I’m placing the graceful light of Natasha Kusch and the longing-through-every-extension of Daniel Gaudiello, alongside the exquisitely regal Ako Kondo and the capable-of-altering-speed-in-mid-flight glory of Chengwu Guo. All four, the embodiment of the Baroques’ gilded illusion and light! Complemented by Lisa Bolte’s compassionate Queen Florestan, a former Aurora-cum-kindly-monarch, the balance between light and (Carabosse’s) shade shall be held. The Queen, given the respect denied to Carabosse (presented as the quite rightly aggrieved—who wouldn’t invite the God Mother to the christening?), an allegory on beauty herself.

To Petipa’s purity-of-line alchemy, McAllister has formed a bouquet around the young Aurora (in the first act based on a flower motif), before having her emerge as a future stately queen, reflecting Tchaikovsky’s score for his transitioning Little Briar Rose. The corps de ballet, too, have been freed from warm prop ‘goblet patrol’ with additions made to the garland dance. The Rose Adagio shares the partnering between the four unsuccessful suitors, and lines of forest-dwelling nymphs now thread like green tendrils.[note]David McAllister in Conversation with Virginia Trioli, Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 19, 2015[/note]

The storybook curiosities of Little Red Riding Hood and her Wolf-in-pursuit, Cinderella and her Prince Charming, Puss in Boots and the coquettish White Cat, have also been clipped for brevity’s sake. With Little Red Riding Hood carrying the picnic basket and Cinderella cleaning up, they now appear as character traits in Prince Désiré’s friends, in act II’s hunting party, and again in masquerade at the Palace wedding of act III. [note] “Tylesova had the idea to make their Act II costumes subtly prefigure their Act III storybook guises and McAllister made their behavior follow suit: in act II the ‘bluebirds’ spat with the ‘cats’, ‘Red Riding Hood’ carries the picnic basket, ‘Cinderella’ is always clearing things up.”Rose Mulready, ‘Blossom Time’, “The Sleeping Beauty” programme, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia 2015, 15[/note] And as I’ve rats to swoon over, and fairies with wigged hair like candy confection (from the sapient mauve of Miwako Kubota’s Lilac to Dimity Azoury’s endless Joy), I am more than fine with this. I’ll take more of the grandiloquent celebration of baroque glory in (the character of) Little Red’s place any day.

Underpinning all “Beauty,” fearlessness. A confident, well-placed fearlessness as exemplified by principal artist, and opening night’s Aurora, Lana Jones: The ballet requires a lot of strength and sustained control and determination. When you’re out there performing and it’s so quiet, and you realise all eyes are on you …. any tiny little stumble feels so exaggerated, so you put that pressure on yourself that it has to be immaculate and perfect. But at the same time …. David definitely wants it to look spontaneous, like you’ve just made it up in that instant. He wants his Aurora to be very free. And that’s hard, because the technique is so dignified and structured — to look like you’re just floating away with it will, I think, be my biggest challenge, and it’s also what I’m most looking forward to bringing to the role….”[note]Rose Mulready, Behind Ballet, September 7, 2015[/note]

In a palace evocative of the Château de Versailles, Molière, Lully and Racine could well have been playing parlour games just out of sight. A glittering court for the long-awaited stately formality of the grand pas de deux, typified by Kondo and Guo, makes my collection near complete. Though separated by one hundred and more years, but true to the fantasy, I can only parrot and not better, fellow devotee, Léon Bakst, who said upon leaving the theatre: “I lived in a magic dream for three hours, intoxicated by fairies and princesses, by splendid palaces flowing with gold, by the enchantment of the old tale”.[note]Ismene Brown, ‘The Seed of Beauty,” programme, 11[/note]

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

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