Harlequinade (The Australian Ballet) – ballet review

Love is in the air, but there are those who have other ideas. That, in a nutshell is the premise of Harlequinade. Based on commedia dell’arte – an early form of professional theatre, originating in Italy and popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries – the piece was created in 1900 by Marius Petipa. He choreographed some of classical ballet’s most enduring works, including Swan Lake and The Sleeping BeautyWorking with the original notation of Petipa’s choreography, Alexei Ratmansky is responsible for its revival. Ratmansky is former director of the Bolshoi Ballet and artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre.

Photos by Jeff Busby

Harlequin (Brett Chynoweth) and Columbine (Benedicte Bemet) are in love. But her father, Cassandre (Steven Heathcote AM) – who wants her to marry a rich buffoon – has her locked up by sad, languid clown Pierrot (Callum Linanne), his loyal servant. Pierrot’s wife, Pierette (Sharni Spencer) – who is sympathetic to the young couple –  helps her escape. Then a Good Fairy (Ingrid Gow) gives Harlequin a magical slap stick that helps him triumph over the odds. That is despite the arrival of the wealthy and pompous Leandre (Timothy Coleman) – who Cassandre favours – who tries to woo Columbine.

How humorous, joyful and colourful Harlequinade is. It is thoroughly entertaining lightweight fare – a feast for the eyes and ears. The first half focuses on skulduggery and the second celebration. An enchanted thread runs through both. Superbly executed, Harlequinade has been designed to put a smile on your face and succeeds in doing so. The performances are wonderful – Marius Petipa and Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography outstanding. The leads are supremely skilled – their stage craft and prowess inspiring.

Seriously impressive are Brett Chynoweth’s high leaps and dexterity, while Benedicte Bemet’s lightness of touch and voluminous twirls leave a lasting impression. Callum Linanne’s comic mastery and affectations are noteworthy. The other principal dancers shine too, alongside the Corps de Ballet, with children drawn from ballet schools across Victoria. The cast’s snake-like exits – one of the ballet’s many highlights – make quite the statement.

The costuming – much of it a cavalcade of colours, rich and redolent – is craftsmanship at its finest. The sets and costumes were created by Robert Perdziola, based on a close study of the 1900 originals, which are held at a museum in St Petersburg. I delighted in the melodic score by Riccardo Drigo – a close collaborator of Tchaikovsky’s – which perfectly captured the mood. The conductor is Nicolette Fraillon AM and concertmaster Sulki Yu, leading Orchestra Victoria.

The Australian premiere of Harlequinade is charming and cheery – a triumph of spirit and artistry. It is playing at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 25th June, 2022.

Alex First

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