Although Serge Lifar dominated French ballet for most of this century, he is virtually unknown in America--except, perhaps, as the dancer for whom George Balanchine created "Apollo" and "Prodigal Son." As a result, the Australian Ballet production of Lifar's 1943 "Suite en Blanc" comes as a revelation: authentic, vintage neoclassicism completely different from the celebrated achievements in that idiom by Balanchine and Frederick Ashton.
Seen on an otherwise familiar three-part program Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, "Suite en Blanc" enlists 45 minutes of the score that Edouard Lalo composed for "Namouna" in 1881--music of great formal elegance but also tingling with atmosphere and sensuality. Although three women appear in Romantic tutus, the ballet honors Russian-style classicism at its most brilliant and imposing, beginning and ending with 35 dancers arranged architecturally on two floor levels and adjoining staircases.
Throughout, Lifar's solos, duets and trios are both amplified and ornamented by inventive corps patterns (often using groups of eight). If his steps emphasize academic technical display, the unusual, custom-tailored torso twists and gestural motifs encourage you to see the classical vocabulary in new ways.
For example, Miranda Coney's hands behind her head and, later, behind her back in the pas de trois--or Anna de Cardi touching her shoulders during balances-in-extension in the "Serenade" solo--look strangely intimate. But that's Lifar's intention: to personalize this grand-scale, tutu-and-tiara divertissement and keep it rich in feeling. So he keeps splitting the focus between the individual and the group, the abstract and the emotional.
Unfortunately, most of the eight Australian Ballet principals at the matinee proved overtaxed by Lifar's technical demands, with only Coney in the "Variation de la Cigarette" and Lisa Pavane in the "Variation de la Flute" ideally accurate and stylish. A nice try, but definitely no triumph.
Completing the program: Jiri Kylian's intense "Return to the Strange Land" (1975) and David Lichine's effervescent "Graduation Ball" (1940), ballets well known to local audiences from productions by (respectively) the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Set to piano music by Leos Janacek, "Strange Land" explored turbulent and intricate partnering relationships through a vocabulary at once balletic and gymnastic.
Led by the powerful Greg Horsman and the meticulous Pavane, the statuesque Ulrike Lytton and the sinewy Steven Heathcote, the matinee Australians magnificently overcame the work's most daunting physical hazards, but without quite embodying the tension and weight that makes Kylian look like Kylian. Nigel Gaynor played the score sensitively.
"Graduation Ball" also looked distorted stylistically--too broad and smirky--though the reassembled Johann Strauss music sounded tolerably fresh and the Geoffrey Guy designs (based on Benois) enforced the appropriate sense of period stagecraft.
Lichine's depiction of a party at a Viennese girl's school adroitly balanced nostalgic charm and dance excitement, though the best choreography was assigned to people with no real place in the story. Thus Pavane and the noble David Ashmole functioned as guest stars in their polished neo-Romantic adagio, while allegro virtuosity belonged to Coney, Rachel Broomham (competition dancers) and Steven Woodgate (drummer).
Far less compelling caractere high jinks remained for the nominal leads: Fiona Tonkin and Elizabeth Toohey as young girls, Colin Peasley and Roy Wilson as their decrepit chaperons. Ormsby Wilkins conducted both "Graduation Ball" and "Suite en Blanc" propulsively.