One of the great wonders of dance is how much it can pack into a short amount of time and how many layers of meaning can co-exist.

Frederick Ashton’s highly distilled, vastly enjoyable version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is done and dusted in less than an hour. The tragedy Marguerite and Armand, inspired by the semi-autobiographical novel La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, is over in 40 minutes. In neither case do you feel short-changed, such is the richness of Ashton’s imagination.

Early on, Ashton was entranced by Anna Pavlova, whose electrifying presence seemed to alter the air around her. He called Pavlova “the greatest theatrical genius” he had ever seen. Not dance genius, theatrical genius. As for the ground-breaking Isadora Duncan,  “I suppose she was the first person to interpret music,” he said. “Others danced it.”

Much later Margot Fonteyn, who started working with Ashton when she was only 15 and was dancing Marguerite and Armand into her 50s, said: “I always felt that Fred was seeing Pavlova and that I wasn’t living up to her by any means.”

These dance pioneers – including Fonteyn – had a lasting effect on Ashton’s work. Personal allure, musicality, dramatic expressiveness and individuality were qualities he prized. They would make his ballets quiver with life.

Amy Harris and Nathan Brook in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. Photo © Daniel Boud

Marguerite and Armand was made for Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in 1963, performed for a decade and then forbidden to any and all other dancers until it was revived for Sylvie Guillem in 2000. The diktat slowly faded away after that and the role has attracted many important ballerinas.

TAB principal artist Amy Harris starred in the first performance of this company premiere and rightly so. She is retiring after a 22-year career and the ballet could have been tailor-made for her and the occasion. (Her final performance is scheduled for 24 November.)

The courtesan Marguerite is a mature, flesh-and-blood woman of feeling and intelligence who, on the point of death, relives a great love affair. In brief, hallucinatory scenes she recalls meeting Armand, the separation from him, his shocking public humiliation of her and their short reconciliation. It’s essentially Verdi’s La Traviata in miniature, intensely compressed to ramp up the hot-house atmosphere.

Ashton described the ballet has having “enormous sexual impulse behind it” and “a kind of animalism”. We see those forces in Marguerite’s erotically arched back, luxuriant arms and shoulders and burning glances. After Armand dashes into a party to contemptuously throw money at Marguerite she drags herself away, upright but staggering on pointe. Harris had earlier been fully invested in life’s pleasures. Here she was profoundly wounded. In a few steps there was a vast world of pain.

Harris’s Armand was senior artist Nathan Brook, a man who arguably has the most noble proportions of anyone in the company. He was a touch too restrained emotionally but looked wonderful in Ashton’s choreography – the elegant line, sweeping upper body, yearning arabesques and ecstatic flurries of fast turns (some of them a little wayward).

Brett Chynoweth in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. Photo © Daniel Boud

After the tragedy of Marguerite and Armand comes the delectable romp that is The Dream (1964). Shakespeare’s outer acts are gone and Ashton whirls into action. A quarrel between fairy royalty Titania and Oberon leads to partner-swapping shenanigans and deliciously sexy pas de deux for immortals and mortals alike. Obviously all will be well when the night is done.

For something that looks so light and full of ease The Dream is devilishly hard to pull off. Sensuous upper bodies twist this way and that, propelled by quicksilver feet working to a much faster beat. There are complicated changes of direction, comic business that needs to be impeccably timed to land and, famously, a donkey on pointe.

On opening night, Luke Marchant was funny and touching as the rustic Bottom, somehow changed into an ass and deposited into the arms of Ako Kondo’s lustrous Titania. Chengwu Guo was the imperious, high-flying Oberon and everyone else in this busy, happy ballet played their parts joyously.

Best of the best was Brett Chynoweth, whose Puck truly was a magical creature of the air, darting and floating as if made of star dust.

The vastly experienced Barry Wordsworth, principal guest conductor of The Royal Ballet, was on hand to direct the Opera Australia Orchestra in two scores of very different stamp.

Andrew Dunlop, TAB’s head of music staff and principal pianist, was the distinguished soloist in Liszt’s foreboding B minor piano concerto for Marguerite and Armand, arranged for orchestra.

Mendelssohn’s bathed-in-moonlight music, so brilliantly interpreted by Ashton for The Dream, sent the audience out on a blissful high.

The Dream/Marguerite and Armand is at the Sydney Opera House until November 25.

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