Callum Linnane and Brett Chynoweth (Harlequin) in ”Harlequinade” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Harlequin and Clown

The Australian Ballet perform “Harlequinade”

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Harlequinade” by Alexei Ratmansky
Place
The State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, June 17 & 24 (livestream), 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

In Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of Marius Petipa’s lost classic “Harlequinade,” we have the familiar characters Pierrot and Pierette, Harlequin and Columbine. Known from paintings, figurines, pantomimes, other ballets, sweets, and from the commedia dell’arte. With a chorus of characters, young and old, coloured by collective, ever-changing memory over the centuries, the Australian Ballet presents “Harlequinade” a co-production with American Ballet Theatre. This merry romp, a light-hearted play, a confection for the senses. True to history, “Harlequinade’s” appeal lies in its quick-change movements of the familiar, stock characters and the quick-change movements of the story. In his pre-curtain address, on opening night, Artistic Director David Hallberg offered forth a tumbling “sugar rush” to tuck into.

The stage, like a moveable flap book (also known as turn-ups, metamorphoses, or harlequinades) is both a toy and story book, just as a commedia dell’arte is “not an idea or a meaning, but a collection of images with many meanings.”1 True to an interactive book set apart by how they can be read, lift the flap, and a balcony can slide down to the ground, in Act I. Spin the wheel, and a Good Fairy can materialise where previously stood a statue in the village square. Turn the page, Act II, and Harlequin as a hunter can pop up from behind a spinning umbrella in pursuit of his lark, Columbine. Through engagement, a delicious puzzle!

Benedicte Bemet as Columbine in “Harlequinade” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Jeff Busby

The pretty paper platform itself is based on the original sets from 1900, rounded out by Riccardo Drigo’s cheerful score. Working from “notations written out in the Stepanov system, made by the director of the Mariinsky Theater Nikolai Sergeyev and his assistants” Ratmansky, proceeding from the “idea that these records reflect the choreography of Marius Petipa as it was seen onstage during his life,” has created a “sincere homage to Petipa.”2 The pleasure lies in the charming choreography brought to life on opening night (and the livestream that followed) by Benedicte Bemet as Columbine and Brett Chynoweth as quick-witted, quick-footed Harlequin; and by Jill Ogai and masked Marcus Morelli on Tuesday night.

Brett Chynoweth as Harlequin in “Harlequinade” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Where “Kunstkamer” gave us a ‘room of art’ (and what a brilliant chamber that was to explore), presented on its heels, this delightful ‘comedy of art’ showcases the company’s technical and creative versatility, replete with a solo mandolin serenade and exquisite corps de ballet fluttering around Columbine. Drum rolls and cymbal crashes underscore the comedic-melodramatic moments, such as when Harlequin (in mannequin form) is tossed from the balcony, proving pace and rhythm is everything in comedy, and that the score and choreography, to paraphrase music director and conductor Nicolette Fraillon, are inseparable. And of comedic timing, Timothy Coleman and George-Murray Nightingale as Léandre, hammed it beautifully as the suitor more interested in the self. From preening and affected to adorable. Extend the accordion, and thirty-two children in miniaturised versions of floppy-sleeved Pierrot appear, thanks to ballet schools from across the state. A bobble-headed tiny carnival, to echo pointiness of Sharni Spencer and Robyn Hendricks’s Pierette, and the powdered languidness of Callum Linnane and Adam Bull’s Pierrot.

Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth with the Australian Ballet in “Harlequinade” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Playful, comedic, historical, yes, but it is not, as Ratmansky expressed, a time machine “because the time is actually running ten-times faster than it did in 1900 and everything including the bodies of the dancers, the pointe shoes of ballerinas, the floor, the materials of the costumes, the way the audience see the bodies, everything is different. Today’s technique require the bodies to be very much pulled up, very vertical.”3 And so we have our smitten Harlequin with his lowered centre of gravity, and a magical slapstick with its resounding whack-whack, inhabited so completely, and differently, by Chynoweth and Morelli. Together with gesture and mime to guide the audience through the story, while also charming us, with each pose struck, the richer the palette of movement, the sweeter the rush.

Spencer’s Pierette sparkled and mirrored Bemet’s tender-hearted Columbine. (Spencer was promoted to Principal Artist after her performance as Columbine on the closing night of “Harlequinade”). From Bemet’s thirty-two fouettées, and light hops on one leg as she journeys from front to back, rendering the trickster here not just Harlequin, but Columbine, to the hypnotic swirling patterns drawn by each and every corps de ballet lark, I’m all in for the visual spectacle.

  1. Martin Green and John Swan, The Triumph of Pierrot (New York: Macmillan, 1986), xiii; cited by James Fisher, “Harlequinade: Commedia dell’Arte on the Early Twentieth-Century British Stage” Theatre Journal Vol. 41, No. 1 (March, 1989), p. 30
  2. Alexei Ratmansky, Choreographer’s Note, The Australian Ballet “Harlequinade” programme, 2022, p. 20.
  3. Alexei Ratmansky in conversation with Catherine Murphy, transcribed from a pre-recorded interview included at interval during the Australian Ballet’s livestream of “Harlequinade,” June 24, 2022.
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