The cast of La Sylphide | State Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Beguiling pixies and fairies, a very wicked witch, betrayal, heartbreak and sudden death. No, I am not talking about more mind-numbing convulsions within the federal Labor Party, for in the grand scheme of things, this is something much more important: The Australian Ballet’s exquisite double-bill of Paquita and La Sylphide, two of the most influential works from ballet’s romantic period in the first half of the 19th century.

It was a full house at the State Theatre, and the night began with Paquita and choreography after French ballet master Marius Petipa. The curtain opened to reveal a simple empty stage, a restrained but elegant tableau of purple night with shimmering stars and two high hanging chandeliers. Hugh Colman’s lovely costumes, their gold and yellow hues for the corps de ballet and soloists, and silver cream for the leads (the wonderfully elegant Olivia Bell and graceful Adam Bull) worked beautifully.

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Originally a full-length work, Paquita has evolved over time into a shorter piece centred on the grand pas de deux taken from the marriage scene in the last act. In its truncated form, there is little of what one might conceive as a narrative, but with Petipa’s challenging choreography providing a sparkling exposition of incredible artfulness, it is easy to understand why Paquita is still widely performed. This classic is a ballet company’s dream demanding, as it does, the focus on the leads plus four solos in a virtual showdown of competing brilliance. The third soloist, Ako Kondo, won rapturous applause tonight and deservedly so with her spectacular flying entrance.

The company had multiple chances to reveal their individual virtuosity in this splendid piece, all of which was on show. They performed with precise synchronicity and grace while showing good humour, accompanied by Ludwig Minkus marvellous musical score.

The main fare for the evening, of course, was La Sylphide, a work when it debuted in 1836 considered a true “sensation”, which holds true even in our modern idiom. The ballet was the first of the true romantic productions, harking back to a pre-industrial landscape made dreamy with a lost fairy-tale world of pixies and witches. The spectacular set and Jane Austen period costume design by Anne Fraser (Scottish castle hearth in the first act and ethereal forest in the second) presented a rich visual contrast to Paquita.

La Sylphide sparked several fashion crazes among the European bourgeoisie from Dublin to St Peterburg and it’s star, Marie Taglioni, became world-famous for her ability to hover on her toes en pointe, forever changing the world of ballet. One might point out, that her painful innovation also brought a lucrative new stream of business for the nascent profession of podiatry, work that continues today.

Without mentioning by name, La Sylphide also reminds us how another supreme artist from an earlier period, William Shakespeare, loomed large in the early nineteenth century European mind. The Scottish castle setting and ecstatic witches dance scene reminded me much of a comic version of Macbeth-“lite”.

Daniel Gaudiello, as James, dominated the stage with his boisterous and effortlessly amusing portrayal of a young Scottish farmer who falls head over heels for the Sylph. His extraordinary grace and giant leaps, made it appear, at times, as if he were being wafted aloft by invisible wire. Gaudiello is also a consummate actor, with the looks of a very young and lean Richard Burton. Why this incredible Australian talent isn’t very well known outside of the ballet world is beyond me.

Madeleine Eastoe as the Sylph was excellent with just the right mixture of innocence and coquettish teasing. I particularly loved her extraordinary athleticism and graceful dancing with Gaudiello in the delightful scarf-scene. Her poignant, blind and dying Sylph was genuinely moving.

Andrew Wright as Gurn, is a powerful and graceful presence and an excellent foil to James. And how could I end this review without mentioning Colin Peasley’s brilliant, cartoon-like, but utterly believable witch, who finally triumphs after a night full of cackles, threats and spells.

The entire company showed true brilliance, the energy and life-affirming vitality of Australian ballet, particularly in the complex Scottish dance scenes, was obvious to anyone fortunate to be in the audience, which gave copious but restrained Melbourne-like applause. The overture, redolent of Wagnerian bombast and the tight, exemplary performance of Orchestra Victoria, lead by guest conductor Philip Ellis, also contributed to making the evening truly memorable.

The details: Paquita and La Sylphide plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre until September 7. The show moves to the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera on November 7-25. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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