“It is so nice to be in an actual theatre,” announced David Hallberg, the Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director as he stepped on stage to open its Celebration Gala. The event marks the Australian Ballet’s festive return after almost two years of interrupted seasons. Quickly curated after rehearsals for this year’s seasons were disrupted due to the Covid Delta wave, the gala is a program of ten artfully-chosen showstopper pas de deux. “We are rarely afforded the opportunity to take the scenes away and show pure, beautiful dance,” explained Hallberg. All credit to the Australian Ballet for turning a disruption into an opportunity to bring out repertoire jewels: swift to stage, but delivering maximum audience impact.

Chengwu Guo and Yuumi Yamada in La Favorita
© Daniel Boud

The curtain-raiser was La Favorita, a firecracker party-piece in the Spanish showstopper tradition of Don Quixote and Carmen. Originally created for Australian Ballet luminaries David McAllister and Elizabeth Toohey, it has since featured in gala programmes across the company’s history. Chengwu Guo and Yuumi Yamada were the opening night cast, demonstrating cleanness of movement and impressively centred turns. 

Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane in Concerto
© Daniel Boud

The exquisitely meditative pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s 1966 Concerto followed. This was my favourite of the evening, danced by Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane with a gorgeously refined lyricism. Hendricks and Linnane both have long, expansive lines and searing, introspective intensity, well-suited to each other and to the choreography. One of Concerto’s recurring motifs was famously inspired by MacMillan watching his muse, Lynn Seymour, warming up at the barre. Hendricks poured herself into this motif of long stretches and melting backbends with a liquid suppleness that was moving in its elegance. 

Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook in Clay
© Daniel Boud

Homegrown choreographer Alice Topp’s 2019 Clay followed, danced with all-consuming commitment by Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook. I have always thought of Topp as a choreographer gifted with unusually high emotional intelligence. So it was unsurprising that Clay was both engrossing and disturbing in its unflinching depiction of the nuances of human relationships. The entire dance masterfully walks the toxic knife-edge between desire and violence. It was heavy viewing, but beautifully danced. Although the genre was completely different, I couldn't help being reminded of the bedroom pas de deux from Mayerling. I would love to one day see Topp try her hand at a full-length dance-drama of this intensity.

Rina Nemoto and Jarryd Madden then danced the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. Nemoto had a suitable melting softness as the hapless swan princess, but overall the piece was compromised by a lack of chemistry between the two leads. Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth then dazzled in the Black Swan pas de deux. I have mostly seen Bemet cast in pretty soubrette roles, so I was fascinated to see how she’d perform as the sinister Black Swan. Whilst her delicate movement quality remained, Bemet took on the Black Swan’s dark confidence with relish, and she and Chynoweth ate up the pas de deux’s technical fireworks to wild cheers from the audience. 

Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake
© Daniel Boud

Hendricks and Linnane then reappeared for the ‘Italy’ pas de deux from Anna Karenina. This dance can only be described as cinematic, in its romantic sweep and dramatic angst, with Hendricks in a flowing white nightdress melting around Linnane’s passion and despair. Both leads were, once again, artistically and technically effortless. The pas de deux from Wayne McGregor’s revolutionary 2006 Chroma followed. It was a short excerpt, seemingly over as soon as it began, but beautifully executed by Imogen Chapman and Cristiano Martino. Sharni Spencer and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson then took on the Valencienne and Camille pas de deux from The Merry Widow. It was interesting to watch Spencer’s Valencienne, who was far more refined, romantic, and less sassy than the character is usually acted, but I enjoyed the dancing nonetheless. 

Rina Nemoto and Nathan Brook in After the Rain
© Daniel Boud

Christopher Wheeldon’s much-hyped After the Rain followed. This work is performed and lauded frequently by companies around the world – often used as a farewell performance for retiring star dancers – but I have always considered it overrated. Audiences never fail to be moved by the genius of the music, Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, one of the world’s greatest living composers. And yet to me Wheeldon’s choreography demonstrates only a superficial understanding of Pärt's music, with the supposedly “deep” emotion of the main couple feeling like a cheap gloss riding on the genuine depth and purity of Part’s score. At any rate, tonight’s performance was beautifully performed by both the musicians and the dancers, Nemoto and Brook.

The Gala culminated with the magical pas de deux from Act 2 of The Nutcracker. Bemet and Guo seemed new to dancing with each other, but shone in their individual roles. Guo’s trademark lightness and bravura in big jumps, and Bemet’s effortless regal loveliness ended the night on a fairytale high.