While the Australian Ballet’s recent Kunstkamer was a dance piece about the spirit of museums, Harlequinade is something of a dance museum piece. Choreographed in 1900 by Marius Petipa, Harlequinade is another of Alexei Ratmansky's lovingly researched historical reconstructions. Ratmansky seems better known for his reconstructions of ballet dramas, such as Swan Lake and La Bayadère, but Harlequinade is something different – a bright, energetic pantomime of a ballet, featuring the classic cast of characters from the commedia dell’arte tradition.

Brett Chynoweth in Harlequinade
© Jeff Busby

There is the pretty Columbine (Sharni Spencer), guarded by her money-minded father Cassandre (Steven Heathcote in a welcome return to the stage). He is helped by his servant, the hapless baggy-sleeved Pierrot (Jarryd Madden), whose flailing efforts are undermined by his coquettish wife Pierrette (Amy Harris). Our hero is the vibrant Harlequin (Chengwu Guo), who is smitten with Columbine and tries every trick in the book to win her. Such is his dedication that he journeys to death’s door and back – but all ends well when the Good Fairy (Ingrid Gow) comes to the rescue with a set of magic slap sticks. The ballet ends with a joyous wedding where all misunderstandings are resolved and, as the cherry on the (wedding) cake, it actually rains money. As I watched the dancers exalting in the downpour of bank notes, all I could think was “weirdly, in the hands of Petipa, this sort of makes sense.” What can I say, you had to be there. 

Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Harlequinade
© Jeff Busby

Which, I think, is exactly Ratmansky’s intention. Watching one of his reconstructions is the closest thing currently available to sitting in a dance time machine and being transported back to the St Petersburg Hermitage in 1900, where Petipa had created Harlequinade as a celebration of the Imperial Ballet’s reigning prima ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska (she famously disliked the choreography and flicked the role of Columbine to another dancer). It’s not an experience readily available to Australian audiences, given Ratmansky reconstructions are mostly produced in Europe and the US, and is worthwhile just for the distinct feeling of watching a ballet from another era. 

It was also good to see a different side of Petipa, a little more experimental and buoyant than the more familiar Petipa giants of the classical ballet canon (such as his Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, to name but a few). Despite being less well-known today, Harlequinade was immensely popular in its time, and was recreated by Ratmansky from dance notation recorded by the Mariinsky Theatre's then-director, Nikolai Sergeyev. Ratmansky also chose to use the original sets and costumes, brought to life from archival drawings by the wonderful American artist Robert Perdziola. I was impressed by the vibrancy of those sets and especially the costumes, a medley of Rococo Revival and a mosaic of diamond-paned Harlequin clothing, complete with jewel-coloured tights.

Steven Heathcote and Callum Linnane in Harlequinade
© Jeff Busby

The dancers inhabited this reconstructed world with enthusiasm, which is absolutely necessary for a comic, mime-heavy ballet like Harlequinade. There was good attention to the period details of the movement, especially in the arms and tilt of the head, and in the choreographic floor patterns. Guo was well-cast as Harlequin – even in non comic roles he projects a certain brash confidence, with a bounding leap, clean batterie, and a robust approach to characterisation. The stylistic details of Harlequin’s movement (in an already heavily stylised ballet) were all crystal clear in Guo’s performance. The hyperbolic tilt of the shoulders and heads, the sassy angles of the calves and ankles, the sharpness and precision in the feet – all are required for Harlequin's trademark cartoonish energy. As Columbine, Spencer danced with her characteristic lightness and sunny stage presence. Real-life couple Madden and Harris were audience favourites as Pierrot and Pierrette, with Madden getting some of the loudest audience laughs of the evening. Timothy Coleman also gifted the audience with brilliant comic timing as the foppish Léandre.

The other highlight of Harlequinade is the children’s ballet. Petipa gave children an entire suite in Act 2, where they dance as child parodies of the adult characters. The dancers were selected from a range of ballet schools across Victoria, and gave gorgeous and impressive performances. With that much young talent in one night alone, Australia’s dance future looks very bright.

Timothy Coleman in Harlequinade
© Jeff Busby

All in all, Harlequinade is worth seeing for the opportunity to view a beautifully produced dance reconstruction. This is its main calling card – an immensely important one for ballet audiences anywhere – but frankly I am not sure if its strengths will appeal to more than a specific segment of ballet lovers. It may feel dated to others, and its cultural relevance may be a stretch for Australian audiences. Like Kunstkamer, it is very obviously European, but lacking the modernity that made Kunstkamer relevant here. Just as well it's very funny and rains cash. 

***11