The Australian Ballet review: Balanchine's Jewels is a glittering delight

“It’s been 35 years since The Australian Ballet performed at the Royal Opera House,” Artistic Director David Hallberg told the cheering crowd on opening night.

He reminded us of the Sydney company’s close ties with their Covent Garden counterparts, dating back to 1960 when Dame Ninette de Valois sent Dame Peggy Van Praagh off to Australia to help a ballet company “in crisis.” The ailing Borovansky Ballet was transformed into The Australian Ballet in 1962 and under her leadership and successive luminaries like Sir Robert Helpmann it has become a world-class company.

Hallberg succeeded David McAlister in 2021 and the changing of the guard has seen a swift rise of many young dancers and a reinvigorated sense of purpose and brio.

Balanchine’s three-part Jewels is a bold declaration of intent, each part of the dance triptych requiring distinctly different styles and nuances. With no narrative, this is dance for dance’s sake, filled with often fiendishly tricky choreographical delights but also needing some extra dimension from the performers to truly bring it to life.

Considering the noticeable youth of the company, the standard of dance was exemplary. Although it took a little warming up at the start, it built steadily through the evening to the spectacular end.

The opening Emeralds is the least flashy, with Faure’s languid and lovely movements reflected in the soft lines of both the tulle costumes and the company’s delivery of the gentle swirling steps. Close attention is rewarded with some delightful phrasing but it didn’t quite connect from music to chorography, dancers to audience as well as the successive pieces. 

The middle section is the bold and brassy Rubies, set to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

The dynamic black and red set and costumes immediately demanded gasps as the curtain lifted to reveal the cast arrayed in “tiara” formation, and the company swiftly embraced the sassy jazz-infused stylings, complete with shrugged shoulders and cocked hips.

A tall, imperious Isobelle Dashwood attacked her central solos with knife-sharp limbs but central couple Ako Kondo and Brett Chynoweth stole the show with flickeringly fleet footwork and whip-cracking jumps and turns. 

The closing Diamonds is precision-tooled for maximum finale flair. Danced to selections from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No3, it is correspondingly replete with echoes of classical Russian ballet grandeur.

The solos and pairings are strong but it is the corps de ballet here that shines. The piece inexorably builds and builds to ever more complicated massed choreography, the dancers flashing in and out of and weaving through endlessly shifting formations, while they jump and lift and twirl.

The Australian Ballet impresses throughout, and those final minutes are breathtaking. There’s a sense still of another gear yet to be found but this production is testament to a company brimming with exciting promise for the next 60 years.