Harlequinade is a confectionary delight. The elaborate sets and costumes created by Robert Perdziola, based on a close study of the 1900 originals, are dazzling. Perdziola designs the ornate costumes with a mix of Parisian style and classical ballet aesthetic. The bright colour pallet of dress, lighting and set is breathtaking and draws in the audience immediately. There was a collective gasp as the decorative curtain rose on the extravagant scene.
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1900, Harlequinade is based on scenes from the Italian commedia dell’arte story. This production was reworked from Petipa’s original notes by renowned Russian choreographer and dance artist Alexei Ratmansky. The lively, uplifting score is by Italian-born, Russian-based conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo, who had been a frequent collaborator of Tchaikovsky’s. One year after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Drigo was granted permission to musically rework the score to Swan Lake for the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. Shortly afterwards, he began work on his own original score, which led to the creation of the ballet Harlequinade.
The narrative is a romantic comedy centered around six main characters: Harlequin (Brett Chynoweth), Columbine (Benedicte Bemet), her father Cassandre (Steven Heathcote), a faithful servant named Pierrot (Callum Linnane), his helpful wife Pierrette (Sharni Spencer) and Léandre (Timothy Coleman), a wealthy love-interest who Columbine’s father wants her to marry. And a statuesque Good Fairy (Ingrid Gow), wearing some of the production’s most jaw-dropping costumes, is thrown in for magical measure. The plotline is busy with slapstick Charlie Chaplain-like physical comedy. It is farcical and mischievous with easy laughs. Looking beyond the amusing narrative, Harlequinade is a platform for virtuosic moves. The choreography is traditional and presentational with striking Russian folk dance incorporated into some of the larger ensemble groupings. It is fluid and musical with an air of lightness and gaiety.
Petipa’s initial ballet was called Les millions d’Arlequin and expanded on the love story between two stock characters, Columbine/Ballerina and Harlequin, from Act 1 of his ballet The Nutcracker. These familiar characters represent the ideal feminine in Columbine and a cheeky master of ceremonies in Harlequin. It is no wonder the graceful ballerina falls for Harlequin; with his playful energy he dotes on her every move. Chynoweth was completely committed to the character and could not have been better cast. His acting had a dramatic flair that kept the audience invested in his nonsensical adventures. He truly engaged the audience throughout the ballet with his entertaining pantomime. Act 1 is a confectionary rush of spirited characters and action filled subplot, while Act 2 is a more refined showcasing of sophisticated choreography. Chynoweth was every bit a showman, mastering the demanding moves in the grand pas de deux in addition to being an accomplished actor. His manèges jumps encircling the stage reached a suspended ballon that magnified his flexibility and defiance of gravity. He elegantly executed all of his turns and seamlessly maneuvered his ballerina through many intricate lifts. For her part Bemet was flawless. She fluttered her arms and feet like a little bird demanding attention. Her balances on pointe were held, her consecutive fouetté turns clean, hops on pointe effortless, and her demeanor gracious and generous. Bemet and Chynoweth were perfectly matched with charm, energy and connectedness.
Further charms of Act 2 included 32 young student dancers gathered from various schools around Victoria. Their unison was impressive, adding to the collective beauty of the ballroom scene. The company dancers executed Petipa’s deceptively difficult choreography with great precision and physical prowess. The finale felt complete and satisfying with its crescendo of music and elaborate dancing. While last week’s performances of the highly-praised contemporary ballet Kunstkamer were dense with raw emotion and high-pitched physicality, Harlequinade is a delightful palette cleanser to brighten your mid-winter blues. What a treat it is for the Australian Ballet to have such a diverse repertoire.
Harlequinade continues its run this weekend through Saturday 25 June. There is a live-stream available Friday 24 June.
Photo credit Jeff Busby.
Paris Wages reviewed “Harlequinade”, performed by The Australian Ballet at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on June 17, 2022.