The Australian Ballet in “Serenade” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Daniel Boud

A Serene Celebration

The Australian Ballet's Celebration Gala

Performance
The Australian Ballet Celebration Gala
Place
The State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, December 9, 2021
Words
Gracia Haby

Beginning in the light of the moon, a remembering. Beginning with a much-loved (and most-performed) “Serenade” by George Balanchine in the State Theatre, the Australian Ballet’s “Celebration Gala” was a surprise foretoken to the 2022 season, and, as the name evokes, a celebration. A celebration to say welcome back to the theatre. A means for me, sat in the audience, to say ‘thank-you’ and feel what I’ve missed, the goosebumps of a live performance. Beginning at the close of the year, something unexpected: the gift of a new era.

The Australian Ballet in “Serenade” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Daniel Boud

The “Celebration Gala” coincides with the annual Geminid meteor shower. Two breathtaking illuminations across the night sky, active in December, varied only by their radiant location: State Theatre, for one, constellation Gemini, the other. Balanchine’s “Serenade” invokes this vibrance by moon set. When it premiered, it “was performed in the open air, and it still somehow maintains that atmosphere.”1 Against the gentle night sky of a bare stage, artists of the Australian Ballet appear in long pale-blue tutus as a cascade of musical motion. The stage is not bare, it is, in that moment, as infinite as the sky. It leads you to audibly draw breath. And the audience, as encouraged by artistic director David Hallberg’s in person welcome, burst into applause that feels befitting of both a homecoming and a bestirring. Seventeen night-blooming waterlilies, or perhaps a vine of scented moonflowers, unfurling at twilight to lure nearby pollinators, either way, this serenade is serene. One arm raised to shield the eyes, the hand flexed, we all begin.

In groupings of four, with arms overhead, a floret to a whole. Later, foliage swaying in the breeze to the running lines of the score. Led exquisitely by Amy Harris, and Imogen Chapman and Benedicte Bemet, this succession of fleeting images and repeating patterns seems to chime: pay attention; be grateful; for nothing is ever fixed. To four movements from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48, with the last two, “Elegy” and “Russian Dance,” swapping places so to reveal a new meaning, and conclude on a wistful note, Balanchine’s kinship with the composer suffuses his “Serenade”2 and makes this a beautiful vision.

Links to the natural world, and experiences of lockdown-late, flow into the brilliant excerpt from William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite”, for though this choreography is described as being “a kind of machine, with ballet as its precision tool,”3 there is no need to necessarily read ‘machine’ here as being one that is manmade. To me, the ‘machine’ I see on the stage is akin to the interconnectedness of the natural world where all the pieces work in harmony to sustain each other. I see the long walks of looking. I relate to the feeling of off-balance poses too.

The Australian Ballet in Pam Tanowitz’s “Watermark.” Photograph by Jeff Busby

I picture individual spheres around the dancers on stage, seeking, by definition of ‘kinesphere,’4 to reach the periphery of their spheres with their extended limbs. The space each dancer occupies, the shapes they make together. Lines and shapes and groupings once more. Lines in the pattern form at speed and in doing so I see linked green tendrils in the many arms entwined. The push-and-pull is not just in the movement, but in the smudging of the edges of form against a dark ground, and the effect is utterly hypnotic. Jill Ogai as the Other Person, and artists of the Australian Ballet, accompanied by pianist Kylie Foster, as intended with this excerpt, left me wanting to see more, more, more.

Left wanting to see more is, I imagine, part of the intention of a gala of highlights. From Pam Tanowitz’s excerpt from “Watermark,” in which with an arm folded up and over your head, so as to cradle your own face, and a neat propulsion sideways is the only way to travel and simultaneously morph into a Spotted pardalote in the crown of a eucalypt canopy, to the Dance of the Snowflakes from Act I of “The Nutcracker,” season 2022 can’t come soon enough. I might be indoors, but thanks to Caroline Shaw’s “tribute to and deconstruction of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto,”5 performed by pianist Stefan Cassomenos, I am crouched in a forest watching a microcosm of life flutter before my eyes. Rejoice! A procession of round-backed, sap-sucking aphids in jazz shoes! Such sweet astonishments must every gala yield!

Welcome back. More please.

  1. “Serenade” synopsis, The Australian Ballet Celebration Gala programme, 2021, p10
  2. George Balanchine is quoted in an interview, remarking: “In everything that I did to Tschaikovsky’s music, I sensed his help. It wasn’t real conversation. But when I was working and saw that something was coming of it, I felt that it was Tschaikovsky who had helped me.” ‘Serenade’ notes on The George Balanchine Trust website, https://www.balanchine.com/Ballet/Serenade, accessed December 16, 2021.
  3. Roslyn Sulcas, quoted in “Artifact Suite” synopsis, The Australian Ballet Celebration Gala programme, 2021, p12
  4. “The notion of kinesphere was created by Rudolf Laban to define: “the sphere around the body whose periphery can be reached by easily extended limbs without stepping away from that place which is the point of support when standing on one foot” (1966, p10). This spherical space around our body shifts as soon as we shift our weight.” ‘Kinespehere’ definition on Space and relationship: an exploration of Laban’s spatial concepts in current dance practice, https://thespaceintherelationship.wordpress.com/kinesphere/, accessed December 16, 2021.
  5. Excerpt from “Watermark” synopsis, The Australian Ballet Celebration Gala programme, 2021, p15