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Enduring Magic

To Sir Frederick Ashton’s fast footwork and musicality belongs the Australian Ballet’s double bill “The Dream” and “Marguerite & Armand.” To the charming misadventure distillation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream bubbles “The Dream.” To the legend of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, dovetails Amy Harris’s Marguerite, in Harris’s last stage role before her retirement. After 22-years with the company, Harris bids farewell in a delicious camellia-bloom, echoing Marguerite’s own departure (thankfully for altogether different reasons; Harris is retiring from the stage, whereas her character Marguerite is dying of tuberculous).

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “The Dream / Marguerite & Armand”

Place

Livestream from Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, New South Wales, November 21, 2023

Words

Gracia Haby

Nathan Brook and Amy Harris in “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton. Photograph by Daniel Boud

Principal Artist Harris joined the Australian Ballet in 2002, and Friday night will be her final performance, but until then, we have the livestream, filmed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, in which Harris is a bright spark of pixels on my laptop’s screen. As Nathan Brook, as Armand, comments to camera, “Amy makes it very easy because she is an extremely experienced and amazing storyteller, and so it is very easy to react to her, and so once I am out there with Amy, I sort of forget about Nureyev, and the rest of it, and I just have to dance.”

To paraphrase Harris and Brook, together they seek to make the roles their own, whilst staying true to the famed original. As Harris describes, it is not solely natural chemistry I am watching unfold: “We have so much trust in each other and, ultimately, I think that is what a partnership comes down to: the trust that then brings spontaneity. You can then add layers to the story. I know I am in the capable hands of Nathan, so I just go for it.” Which is precisely how it feels as Harris forlornly falters as if wounded emotionally as well as physically en pointe as she retreats to her deathbed, an elegant chaise longue, befitting Cecil Beaton’s set design. Harris always seems to throw herself wholeheartedly into a role, and it is this full emotion that I have always responded to, as I am drawn into the world of “Marguerite and Armand.” Transposed from the semi-autobiographical novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, The Lady of the Camellias, Harris brings the immediacy to “Marguerite and Armand”; with her “long enameled eyes . . . sparkling and alert,” and true to text, she makes herself look “like a little figure made of Dresden china.”[1]

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in “The Dream” by Frederick Ashton. Photograph by Daniel Boud

“The Dream” and “Marguerite and Armand,” one light play, the other a tragedy, manage to span huge stories through fantastical compression. The story, the choreography, all refined to a purified form in which I can sense the light flutter and exacting beguilement of Ako Kondo’s Titania, and the very real ache of Harris’s Marguerite; the everlasting spring of Brett Chynoweth’s Puck to mislead night wanderers, and the tragic realisation of Brook’s Armand that with every turn to the left says, you should have known better. Created a year apart, and guided by scores by Felix Mendelssohn, orchestrated by John Lanchbery, and Franz Liszt, in the third version of the score arranged by Dudley Simpson, with a piano solo of longing at the keys performed by Andrew Dunlop, respectively, beauty transcends the livestream.[2] As guest conductor Barry Wordsworth introduces, “every phrase in the ballet matches the music, and how the mood that you get from the stage, from the dancers, is so in tune with what’s happening musically in the pit.” Similar to the duality of ‘of its time’ timelessness, I am both ‘in the theatre’ and at home, surrounded by domesticity and fairies, in a glorious backlit jumble swifter than Shakespeare’s wandering moon.

From tender recollections of a past love to recalling earlier transformations, the night ends in the green grove enchantment of the fairy realm, where I can wear long ears for a spell, comparable to Luke Marchant’s Bottom, on the proviso that it is just a loan. Magic ensures that Valerie Terechenko’s Helena finally receives the adoration of her Demetrius, performed by Mason Lovegrove. Chengwu Guo’s commanding fairy king, Oberon, ensures he is the one to meet by break of day. And magic (planning, timing) ensures that Harris ends a brilliant and varied career—spanning the almighty armoured, characterful Queen of Hearts, in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” to the irrepressible green electrical current within William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”—on a well-deserved high. In a role Brook feels is a perfect fit for Harris, in their post-performance conversation, Harris enthuses, “I think it makes it all the more special [to bow out on a debut role]. There’s so many milestones within these last weeks’ [at the Opera House]. A debut and a retirement all mixed in one,” not unlike Marguerite’s own reminisces upon a life fully lived.[3]

Amy Harris and dancers of the Australian Ballet take a bow after a performance of “Marguerite and Armand” by Frederick Ashton. Photograph by Daniel Boud

As Harris summarises, “career highlights? I’ve got three! Finishing on ‘Marguerite and Armand’: magic. “Nijinsky” was another. And Margaret Court Arena ‘La Bayadère’” (The Australian Ballet’s “Summertime Gala” in 2021, after a year-long, post-lockdown absence from the stage).[4] 

To “The Dream,” the use and misuse of magic. To “Marguerite and Armand,” the need and misuse of love. Beaming, both, on stage and screen, in dream and life, confirmation that magic endures. Refresh, press play, magic endures, you’ll see.

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.

footnotes


[1] Excerpt from The Lady of the Camellias (La dame aux camélias), by Alexandre Dumas fils, translated by Liesl Schillinger, Penguin Random House Canada, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/311874/the-lady-of-the-camellias-by-alexandre-dumas-fils-translated-by-liesl-schillinger-introduction-by-julie-kavanagh/9780143107026/excerpt, accessed November 20, 2023.

[2] Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed “Marguerite and Armand” in 1963 especially for Fonteyn and Nureyev, and “The Dream” in 1964 especially for The Royal Ballet, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, entwining the bard with his own distinctive ‘English style’ of the way the head and shoulders are held, so that when an arm is raised, the whole body works to lift it, and, of course, quick-moving footwork.

[3] Looking ahead to the 2024 Melbourne Season, with only three performances scheduled, owing to the forthcoming Arts Centre Melbourne renovations, I hope that the livestreaming of performances, like this one, interstate, is something that can continue.

[4] Nathan Brook on Harris as Marguerite, in their post-performance interview backstage: “It seems like a role that was made for you, more than a debut; it’s fitting.”

[7] Harris performed the role of Romola in John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky,” 2016.

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