Australian Ballet Makes Big Impression in New York City

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Dance.


Fifty years is a milestone definitely worth celebrating, and the Australian Ballet’s anniversary programming includes its first New York performances since 1999. Now led by former principal dancer David McAllister, the company is bringing two new programs of works to its repertory.
The mixed bill, entitled Infinity, includes the latest collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre, the prominent indigenous dance company, as well as a sleek 2009 work created for the troupe by the in-demand Wayne McGregor and a retrospective compilation of pas de deux interspersed with video montages.
The weekend program, Graeme Murphy’s 2002 version of Swan Lake, may feature the familiar Tchaikovsky score, but little else about it will resemble any other Swan Lake you’ve seen.
“It seemed like the right time to come back—and with this repertoire that we hadn’t brought to North America but that we’ve taken to a lot of other places,” McAllister said last fall during an interview in an Upper West Side diner.
The upbeat, youthful-looking artistic director, 48, was in town with four leading Australian Ballet dancers who performed Glen Tetley’s Gemini at City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. That work, often performed by American Ballet Theatre during the 1970s, had been revived for the anniversary season as an example of works created for the Australian company.
The Australian Ballet is truly Australia’s national company, performing regularly in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and other cities. As with many classical troupes, full-length works occupy at least half of the programs, but its mixed bills have been adventurous, and the company has cultivated two resident choreographers: Stanton Welch, now the artistic director of Houston Ballet, and Stephen Baynes.
Both will be represented in Luminous, the anniversary retrospective McAllister has staged for the New York season. Along with excerpts from their ballets, it will incorporate celebrated classical pas de deux from Giselle, Don Quixote and others. “We’re doing a short history of the company in one piece,” McAllister said. “We have a lot of archival material, and I’m working with filmmakers with whom we have a long relationship.”
McGregor is the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, whose works have been turning up in many repertories, including that of New York City Ballet. He created Dyad 1929, set to Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet, in 2009 when the ballet world was celebrating the centennial of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a tribute to the innovative spirit of that legendary enterprise.
The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre have collaborated on four works over the past 15 years, all choreographed by Stephen Page, Bangarra’s artistic director. The combined forces of the two troupes—including all 14 of Bangarra’s dancers—will perform Warumuk—in the dark night, which had its premiere in February.
“It’s the first piece Stephen has done for us where he’s actually drawing from indigenous stories.,” McAllister said. “There’s a whole beautiful series of stories about the night sky—dreaming about what happens during the night.”
David Page, the choreographer’s brother, composed the original orchestral score. (All Australian Ballet performances will feature music performed by the New York City Ballet Orchestra, conducted by music director Nicolette Fraillon.)
Murphy, who created the striking and unusual Swan Lake, is best known here for his decades as director/choreographer for Sydney Dance Company, a contemporary ensemble. But Murphy started out as a classical dancer, spending five years as a member of the Australian Ballet, before veering off in a new direction. Eventually he came full circle and created a Nutcracker for the company in 1992 that has remained in its repertory. His Swan Lake was the first work McAllister commissioned when he became artistic director in 2001.
“I said to the board, ‘Either this will be a big success or I’m going to have the shortest tenure of any artistic director,’” said McAllister. “I knew it was going to be unusual. But I thought the idea was so strong that it would work. It was a big gamble, but it worked.”
This Swan Lake, he asserts “is definitely not Petipa. All of the choreography is new. But it’s all on pointe, and there are still four acts. Graeme worked with the 1877 musical score, so music associated with the “Black Swan’ in Act 3 is now in Act 1. He wanted to make sense of the whole idea of the swans, rather than having this magician who turns a lot of maidens into swans. He wanted the swans to actually be believable.”
According to the synopsis, Odette is a young maiden whom Prince Siegfried marries only to lose him to the Baroness, a rival who combines elements of both Von Rothbart and Odile. The fragile Odette, confined to a sanatorium where she “could only find escape in a frozen dream where swan-like maidens, much like herself, would calm her fevered mind and where, for a brief time, it seemed as if Siegfried loved her alone.” McAllister suggests that “the swans are basically facets of her personality.”
He’s clearly putting this production front and center as his company’s calling card—a distinctly Australian spin on a classic, and a chance for the Australian Ballet to present New York audiences something that is uniquely its own.

Australian Ballet
June 12-13: Infinity, mixed bill; June 15-17, Swan Lake; David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, davidhkochtheater.com/events.html; times vary, $29+.

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