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Queanbeyan ballerina proves a hit in ‘Paris’

Cameron Holmes and Dimity Azoury. Photo: Darren Thomas

Ballet / “An American in Paris: a new musical,” Melbourne State Theatre until April 23, then Sydney Theatre Royal, April 29-July 3. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

A STAR is born as Queanbeyan ballerina Dimity Azoury takes centre stage in the Australian production of “An American in Paris”, created by US choreographer Christopher Wheeldon around the music and words of George and Ira Gershwin.

Petite and seemingly fragile, Azoury, who is a principal artist with the Australian Ballet, brings physical power, elegance and an unexpected French accent to her role of aspiring dancer Lise Dassin, which she alternates with the original Lise, Leanne Cope.

The ballet, inspired by the 1951 film starring Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly, has been shifted from the 1950s to 1945, just after Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation, and was originally staged in the Théâtre du Chatelet in Paris, where much of the action takes place

The show swings. Photo: Darren Thomas

Performed by classically-trained artists from Australian Ballet company, dancers from stage shows and a select group of musical theatre stars, the show pull out all stops in an unusual fusion of classical, tap and jazz styles.

A special treat is that the exciting music, here performed by Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, is live.

For those unfamiliar with the old movie, young American lieutenant Jerry Mulligan aspiring  visual artist, misses his boat back to the US after the war so stays in Paris to realise his talents.

He ends up in a bar where he meets like-minded Bohemians, Adam (Jonathan Hickey), an American composer a bit like Gershwin someone and well-born Henri (Sam Ward), desperate to  become a cabaret artist in an era where jazz has long been suppressed.

The artistes’ ball. Photo: Darren Thomas

Into the equation steps Lisa, the talented protege of Henri’s family, whose backstory forms part of the plot – all three men love her, but the sparks really fly with Jerry.

Wealthy American patron of the arts, Milo Davenport, (Ashleigh Rubenach) appears, throwing cash into a new avant-garde ballet celebrating the post-war fusion of American and Parisian culture in which Adams will write the score, Jerry will design the sets and Lisa will star.

After several twists and turns, the ballet is staged in triumphant affirmation for all things good about Americans and Paris.

Aesthetically, this production is a triumph for Wheeldon and the original set designer, Bob Crowley. Executed with exquisite taste, a combination of analogue and digital technologies creates a constantly moving set, monochrome at first then burst in into colour, suggesting the freedom of the new Paris – the perfect backdrop for the stylish period costumes.

It  is no less of triumph for the Australian Ballet dancers as they negotiate the gap between the graceful leaps and lifts of ballet and the groovier side of jazz and tap, clearly more familiar to the half of the ensemble whose training  is not in ballet but in showbiz.

There is fun in this contrast, seen when Adam originally wants “I Got Rhythm” to be played as a classical, but is persuaded by Jerry to make it swing, as it does.

Henri’s big moment. Photo: Darren Thomas

Wheeldon’s mastery as a choreographer is seen in his ability to handle large groups, as in Jerry’s number, “I’ve got Beginner’s Luck”, an exotic  Latin Quarter scene, a lavish harlequinade and the showstopper, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

But he is also very adept with the intimate moments, such as Lise’s number, “The Man I Love”, sung in a sweet, gentle voice by Azoury, who was trained to sing for the show.

Cameron, a child performer with “Billy Elliott” before training in classical ballet, seems equally at home with a jazz and classical and sings well, but neither of the two romantic stars is pushed too far on that front.

The vocals mainly left to the musical theatre stars Hickey, Rubenach and most noticeably Ward, known as a member of the Ten Tenors.

In this show, the best is left until the end, with a 17-minute ballet-fantasy sequence played out to moving props and projected backdrops that, an inventive mix of Mondrian and Miró,  suggest the avant-garde paintings of modern European.

“An American in Paris” is an extraordinary fusion of several different art forms, performed by a team of dancers and singers (even the Australian Ballet company members join in for the final song)  who prove that that the stage idea of the “triple threat”– the ability to sing dance and act – is alive and well.

 

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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