Ballet Imperial
Artists of the Australian Ballet in “Ballet Imperial.” Photo courtesy the Australian Ballet

Imperial Suite

The Australian Ballet's “Imperial Suite”

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Imperial Suite”
Place
State Theatre, Melbourne, Victoria, June 20 & 26, 2014
Words
Gracia Haby

“See the music, hear the dance,” a quote attributed to George Balanchine, perfectly encapsulates “Ballet Imperial,” Balanchine’s one-act love letter to the choreography of Marius Petipa and the compositions of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the splendour of imperial Russia as he saw it. The work employs Petipa’s courtly overtone with its hierarchical framework of dancers and melds it to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 2 in G major, op. 44. The result is a work that whilst recalling the Winter Palace with all its grandeur, typifies his belief that “dance is music made visible.” And having now seen this work performed twice in the one season by the Australian Ballet, it is no longer possible to hear Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 2 without recalling principal dancer Lana Jones on the stage.

Balanchine “subscribed to the Hegelian view of history as a spiral: everything recurs, but in a different form…. One of the great Balanchine statements is a definition of what tradition means to the artist: ‘You must go through tradition, absorb it, and become in a way a reincarnation of all the artistic periods that have come before you.’”1

Our self-confessed borrower of many things, Balanchine saw no shame in taking a bit from here and there, for this was his process. He tips his hat at jazz and Lindy Hop dancers (as we saw in “The Four Temperaments”), and he transforms it and makes it his own. Much like a collagist, to me, he created collages with music and the human body and fused them together to make something not possible without the other; to make something unique.

With this in mind,Ballet Imperial” assumes a dreamlike quality. It is like seeing the world as I imagined it looked in 1941, one aspect of it, polished and at its absolute prettiest. So keenly does it evoke the period that I feel as if I have been transported to its premiere in Rio, South America, to a performance that received “a rapturous reception and 18 curtain calls.”2 “Ballet Imperial” has since gone through several transformations. The bejewelled tutus have been replaced with long flowing white chiffon swathes, the cavalier no longer sports “lace sleeves and a collar of white ermine,”3 and the set that conveyed a sense of the inward-looking Winter Palace has been stripped. For a production staged by New York City Ballet in 1973, the name of the work was altered to reflect this shift and the music that is its source, “Piano Concerto No. 2.” But in this production, presented as part of “Imperial Suite,” we are seeing it as it first appeared at that premiere. In its original guise, the tutus and tiaras are back in place, so too the suggestion of the Neva River beyond, blue and shimmering.

And so here we have, in “Ballet Imperial,” a remodelled version of a Russia that no longer exists, and it is a sumptuous meld of all the things one thinks of when one thinks of Balanchine and his choreography: pure classicism bound to modernity. Reminiscent of theatre of the silver screen, which presented as something of a dream during wartime, rationing, and the Great Depression, there is an element of this pure and extravagant escapism to be seen as Adam Bull sends a gentle ripple down two threads of dancers. Orchestrated ensembles form squares, diamonds, and circles on the stage, further illustrating to me the idea that “dance is music made visible”. As new formations assemble, the impression is not unlike looking through a cinematic kaleidoscope.

As music director and chief conductor, Nicolette Fraillon, and guest solo pianist Hoang Pham explained in a pre-performance audience Q&A, Tchaikovsky’s concerto, which follows the traditionally accepted pattern of fast, slower, faster, continually changes from being a duet between pianist (in the pit) and dancer (on stage) to a quartet, quintet, sextet and so on. This sensation is reiterated by Eve Lawson, Ballet Mistress with the company and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, who describes it as though the dancers are “singing with their bodies.”4

As Lawson describes, the upper-body movements in this work are distinctly Russian in flavour, the fast footwork, French: one body, two ways. Opulent costuming and a classical score are juxtaposed with a jazz-inspired modernity, and all elements are meshed seamlessly: a true collage. We are swept up in what can only be described as the challenging splendour of it all, for you cannot look at the beauty of the piece without being aware of the incredible and exacting technique it requires. It is utterly demanding and yet presents the near-to impossible, from the impeccable footwork it insists upon to the effortless way dancers are woven in and out like ribbons. The overall impression is one of an extravaganza to make the jaw drop, and it certainly did.

From this majestic high, we leap to the year 1943, to Serge Lifar’s “Suite en blanc,” which still pleasingly elicits the expected ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the audience when presented with the beauty of the opening tableau. Against a contrasting black ground, the white of the costumes is offset, and once more we are invited to revel in the neoclassicism of all that this double bill is when only earlier in the season we had been at the other end of the spectrum ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ at a different range of movements. In the Melbourne season of winter ballet, “Imperial Suite” proves the perfect bookend to “Chroma,” just as “Suite en blanc” does to “Ballet Imperial.”

To music from the ballet “Namouna” (1881–82), Édouard Lalo’s score, arranged by Lifar, gives us moments of speed, seduction, and the chance for play, from the clearly visible “wafty Cigarette movement, which begins lightly with pizzicato strings and small wind solos…. [to] the almost relentless march rhythms of the Finale, driving the tension to its ultimate heights”.5

In “Suite en blanc,” we see Lifar’s “favourite movement motif—a flattened profile with shoulders turned 90 degrees to the hips, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art and clearly rooted in Art Deco style— ….in [the] elegant struts on and off the stage.”6 Once more the impression of being transported to another century is strong and part of the reason I found so much to love about it, if only I could follow suit and negotiate those unforgiving stairs (on the stage) with such grace. The other component comes from observing the absolute skill it demands.

Heart a-flutter, sidestepping geography and springing from 1941 to ’43 in the space of a twenty-minute interval, I found myself in complete awe of the choreography and how, in the case of the performances I saw, it is executed with prowess bound tightly to energy, athleticism, and grace. May all history lessons leave one’s cheek grazed by tutu tulle.

  1. Arlene Croce, “Onward and Upward with the Arts, ‘Balanchine Said,’” The New Yorker, January 26, 2009, 36
  2. Dr Caitlyn Lehmann, “An Imperial Education,” Chroma and Imperial Suite programme (Melbourne: The Australian Ballet, 2014).
  3. Dr Caitlyn Lehmann, Chroma and Imperial Suite programme, 2014
  4. Rose Mulready, “Singing bodies: Eve Lawson on Ballet Imperial,” the Australian Ballet blog “Behind Ballet,” June 18, 2014.
  5. Katherine Kemp, “Music Note” Chroma and Imperial Suite programme, 2014.
  6. Cheryl A. Ossola, “Program Notes,” San Francisco Ballet website, accessed June 2014.