What: The Dream
When: June 4 -13
Where: Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre
Choreographed by: Frederick Ashton
Musical Direction by: Nicolette Fraillon
Composed by: Erik Satie (MII), Cesar Frank (SV), Felix Mendelsson (TD)
Performed by: Dimity Azoury, Benedicte Bemet, Joseph Chapman, Brett Chynoweth, Noah Cosgriff, Madeleine Eastoe, Chengwu Guo, Rudy Hawkes, Kevin Jackson, Ako Kondo, Natasha Kusen, Natasha Kusch, Heidi Martin, Cristiano Martino, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, Brett Simon, Jacob Sofer, Sharni Spencer, Jane Wood, Jared Wright and artists of the Australian Ballet.
Design by: Frederick Ashton (MII) Sophie Frederovitch (SV), David Walker (TD)
Lighting by: William Akers (MII), John B Read (SV & TD)
This season of The Dream produced by The Australian Ballet and performed in the State Theatre at the Arts Centre Melbourne, is a celebration of mid century English choreographer Frederick Ashton. Comprising of three ballets, the show begins with Monotones II (1966), then there is Symphonic Variations (1946), and after interval there is the main feature The Dream (1964) which is his interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream.
As you can see, the programme is not a chronological journey through Ashton’s choreography, rather it is a journey from sparseness to ornateness, from simplicity to complexity – in form and aesthetic and technique.
Monotones II began the evening with a pas de trois. The stage was bare – just black drapes and black dance floor. The dancers, in contrast were in white, full body unitards including hoods. Whilst they were very evocative of the era in which they were designed, they also reminded me of the running suits which were popular in the 2000 Olympic Games. The aesthetic of the design of this ballet echoing the aerodynamics demanded in athletics .
The three dancers (Kusen, Simon, and Wright) wove wonderful pictures together, freezing at certain moments to allow the beauty of the shape and form to be celebrated and enjoyed by the audience. The white costumes on the black background were demanding of perfection as any imperfection would stand out. Kusen was graceful and glorious. One of the male dancers was always lagging, which was a shame because if their synchronicity had been better, this would have been a breathtaking piece. One of the important aspects of the aesthetic and choreography is the lack of the individual, which makes the perfection of the dancers so imperative. It was still an amazing dance, and Sartie’s music is always awe inspiring.
Symphonic Variations is a fun dance. It is a sextet and none of the dancers ever leave the stage, making it as much of an athletic challenge as a work of grace and beauty. The dancers (Kusch, Martino, Azoury, Chynoweth, Kondo, and Rodgers-Wilson) form fascinating pairings, groupings and chains as they weave with the music. The set is a beautiful green-gold with black lines reminiscent of music notation lines writhing with the dancers.
This dance is more of a technical exercise than an emotional journey. The dancers really seem to just be responding to the music which is fun, although not entirely engaging for the audience. Just when I was starting to become distracted, the music changed into a fun and light gambol, and the dancers responded. I couldn’t help have a little laugh as I got swept up in the joy of dance the dancers appeared to be experiencing.
Symphonic Variations was choreographed in 1946 and the design and style of the ballet does echo that period in history. Ashton had just come back from WWII and England was recovering from the war and trying to regain its belief in joy and beauty, yet not quite having a clear sense of direction and context. In many respects this sums up the ballet.
There are certain choreographic signatures with Ashton’s work, in particular the use of the arms and the upper body, and we see this quite starkly in Ashton’s earliest piece. Apparently Ashton’s choreography has been called ‘bendy’, but I think what they are trying to say is that he insists his dancers use their upper body extensively to convey meaning. The dancers arms and legs are always in an extended pose, and the head and shoulders are used to communicate. He is also a fan of intricate foot work, which is displayed so much more effectively if the dancer bends at the waist rather than the hip.
After the interval we came back to the beauty elegance and humour of The Dream. I was fascinated to note that this ballet pre-dates Monotones II by two years, and it makes me wonder whether Monotones II was a reaction to the grandeur of The Dream.
The Dream is a beautiful ballet, but more importantly it is funny. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays and also one of his funniest. To not live up to the original would be a serious problem, but Ashton’s ballet does not falter for a single second.
Walker’s forest, the world in which the ballet takes place, is imposing. Great, dominating tree trunks, aged to infer hundreds of years of growth. Exposed root systems, corded up into the trunks demonstrate the naturalness and intertwining of magic with the human world, and a large full moon overlooks the shenanigans of the night. The costumes are equally as gorgeous, with glittering green fairies, and candy coloured English lords and ladies. Puck (Guo) is spritely in his half human form, and the rustics are charmingly clad in farm garb.
One of the great achievements of this ballet is that it requires men to dance en pointe. Chapman dances the part of Bottom, and his ass is so funny you just can’t stop laughing. Having this character en point is a genius move by Ashton as it really helps us to feel the oddity and unreality of the entire scenario. Eastoe (Titania) and Chapman dance a truly wonderful duet, and whilst the entire ballet is totally engrossing, for me these two really were the highlight of the evening.
The Dream is a wonderful ballet programme which highlights an important era in modern ballet - both from a design and choreographic perspective. And if you don’t really care about that stuff it is still an evening of beautiful dance which has laughs aplenty and will leave you clapping until your hands hurt.