Dance review: Ballet Under the Stars, Sidney Myer Music Bowl

Plenty of stars despite the clouds at The Australian Ballet's free birthday celebration.

As I boarded a tram in the pouring rain, I reminded myself of Melbourne’s first natural law: if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. I was off to see Ballet Under the Stars – a free, family-friendly performance presented outdoors at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl as part of The Australian Ballet’s 60th birthday celebrations. 

True to form, as I took my place among the crowd, the rain cleared and the stars came out, on stage and off.

Part of the joy of these types of events is people-watching and Ballet Under the Stars didn’t disappoint. Having escaped their bedtime routines, children dressed in sparkly outfits and superhero onesies fluttered about like night flies, while the older contingent, blankets and ponchos at the ready, sipped wine from plastic cups and munched on cheese and crackers. 

This pre-show pageantry was enhanced by The Australian Ballet’s dancers going through their warm-up routine on stage, giving the crowd a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their showtime process. Small children in the crowd tried to mirror the professionals’ pliés and, at the end of the warm-up, an offer of autographs briefly generated a tween frenzy (clearly Harry Styles wasn’t the only celebrity in town that night). 

Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Elder, Aunty Mandy Nicholson, preceded the main program with a Welcome to Country, accompanied by the Djirri Djirri Wurundjeri women’s dance group. Aunty Mandy’s warm and generous welcome set the tone for the night. Channel 9 stalwart, Livinia Nixon, and Australian Ballet Senior Artist, Jarryd Madden, continued the relaxed, conversational style as emcees, with Madden sharing instructive insider knowledge.

Under the baton of Music Director, Jonathan Lo, Orchestra Victoria gave a rousing overture with an excerpt from Swan Lake (one of the Australian Ballet’s key works from its 2023 season). It was a delight to watch Lo conduct the 64-piece orchestra. His expressive body seemed to organically transfer the score’s shifting emotional landscape to the musicians.

The first half of the program kicked off with The Vow, a new Australian commission choreographed by Lucas Jervies. The Vow presented the audience with a wedding ceremony, replete with a string of clichés (hungover groomsmen, an arguing couple, the best man flirting with the bridesmaids and almost losing the rings), but the celebration took a turn when the bride’s brooding and dejected ex (beautifully played by Marcus Morelli) turned up. Though the nuptials were almost derailed by Mr Wrong – for whom the bride clearly retained complicated feelings – sanity prevailed and Mr and Mrs Right triumphed. 

There was an interlude of ‘ockeresque’ spoken word, performed by Best Man (Matthew Soloviev) that came perilously close to cringeworthy. Nonetheless, in his non-verbal capacity, Soloviev gave a terrific performance and the work, set to an arrangement of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite by Tormod Tvete Vik, was entertaining and accessible.

If The Vow gave the audience a taste of the contemporary, Le Corsaire Pas de Deux, initially choreographed by Joseph Mazilier before undergoing several revisions by Marius Petipa, with further updates throughout the 20th century, brought back classic ballet candy, with enough pirouettes and en l’air action to satisfy the staunchest traditionalist. Performed with palpable joy and thrilling technical prowess by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, it was impossible not to cheer, and the audience made its pleasure known loud and clear.

Following the interval was an excerpt from I New Then, choreographed by Nederland Dans Theater’ Johan Inger. Shifting back to a simpler, more urbane aesthetic, I New Then, which had its Australian premiere in 2022 as part of The Australian Ballet’s DanceX program, offered a satisfying counterpoint to the extravagance of Le Corsaire. Set to music from Van Morrison’s 1968 Astral Weeks album (the only recorded music utilised in the program), I New Then is an homage to childhood and adolescent bonds. Charming and meditative, it somehow managed to straddle a style both whimsical and cosmopolitan. 

Photo: Kate Longley.

In a flamenco-infused finale from Don Quixote, featuring the wedding celebration of lovers Kitri and Basilio, the evening’s program concluded with a reprisal of the nuptial theme introduced earlier by The Vow. The 1973 film of Don Quixote, directed by and starring Rudolf Nureyev and Sir Robert Helpmann, was the source material for this stage adaptation – The Australian Ballet’s attempt to transpose the film – sets, costumes and all – to the stage.

Barry Kay’s costumes were spectacular and there was an audible gasp from the audience as the luxuriously appointed dancers walked with a blast of colour and impossible grace onto the stage. It was a suitably extravagant end to Ballet Under the Stars, which thematically turned around passionate, playful, destructive, restorative and platonic incarnations of love. 

Read: Theatre review: Choir Boy, National Theatre of Parramatta

Events such as this rejuvenate the spirit, activating a sense of much needed hope. Congratulations to The Australian Ballet and to all the artists, producers, arts workers, technicians, venue staff and sponsors who made Ballet Under the Stars possible.

Ballet Under the Stars
Produced by the Australian Ballet
Sidney Myer Music Bowl (Vic)

Ballet Under the Stars was performed on 25 February 2023.

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 30 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), a Masters in Theatre Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.