Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2014

The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.

Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.

But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled ‘Chroma’. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The ‘Chroma’ program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian that he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.

A second mixed bill entitled ‘Imperial Suite’ consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.

I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013

Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

 

‘Vanguard’. The Australian Ballet

11 May 2013 (matinee & evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House (The Four Temperaments, Bella Figura, Dyad 1929)

If this triple bill program from the Australian Ballet did one thing it was to show how far ahead of his time George Balanchine was in 1946 when he made The Four Temperaments.

Although the title, The Four Temperaments, suggests a link to the ancient practice of assigning behavioural characteristics to humans based on the extent to which certain fluids are present in the body, I think this is essentially an abstract ballet. It deconstructs classical ballet vocabulary before the idea of deconstruction in arts practice became a trendy phenomenon. So many of the movements—Balanchine’s different examples of supported pirouettes for example—show by the very act of deconstruction how the vocabulary of ballet is constructed. In addition, Balanchine’s use of turned in feet and legs, forward-thrusting pelvic movements, stabbing movements by the women on pointe, angular shapes made with the arms and palms of the hand, are all beyond what the eye is accustomed to think of as pure, classical movement. But seen within the context of the entire ‘Vanguard’ program, it is clear that similar movements surface in the work of choreographers coming after Balanchine. Such an attitude to the balletic vocabulary is especially noticeable in the choreography for Dyad 1929 made by Wayne McGregor in 2009.

Balanchine made his move in 1946 (at least) and I think the different look Dyad 1929 and others of McGregor’s works have, which is certainly a look more in keeping with the twenty first century, is as much a reflection of technical developments and changes in body shape since 1946 as anything else. The Four Temperaments is really a remarkable work.

The Australian Ballet has been beautifully coached and rehearsed for The Four Temperaments. There was a simple elegance and a clarity of technique in their dancing and they made the choreographic design very clear. At times, however, I wished some parts had been slightly more exaggerated—the movement in the pelvis for example. Balanchine was a showy choreographer at times and I think a little of the showiness that American companies seem to add to The Four Temperaments was missing.

Of the two casts I saw I most admired Daniel Gaudiello in the ‘Melancholic’ variation. I loved his unexpected falls, the theatrical way he threw his arms around his body, his very fluid movement, and his wonderful bend back from the waist as he made his (backwards) exit. I also enjoyed the pert and precise quality Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo brought to ‘Theme II’ and Juliet Burnett’s languorous and smooth flowing work in ‘Theme III’. Of the corps Dana Stephensen and Brooke Lockett (in different casts) stood out for me in supporting roles in ‘Melancholic’.

Then came Jiri Kylian’s emotive work Bella Figura with its mysterious lighting and half-revealed spaces.
Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo: Jeff Busby

Felicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura, ca. 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Bella was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 2000 when it had a more than memorable cast, and it has been restaged in the intervening period, again with strong casts. So it is a pleasure to record that one cast I saw on this occasion did not make me think back to other performances. It even opened up for me a new view of the piece. The closing duet, danced in silence by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, in moody lighting with two braziers burning brightly in the background, was moving, intimate and deeply satisfying. What wonderful rapport these two dancers have and how affecting is their ability to project that rapport so strongly. Jones and Gaudiello were also outstanding in another duet earlier on in the work. I don’t remember such a comic element in that particular duet on previous occasions; this time it bordered on the slapstick. But it was brilliantly done as Jones and Gaudiello managed to retain ‘la bella figura’ in its best sense, while also making us laugh.

After these two works Dyad 1929 looked very thin to me. I have admired recent works by Wayne McGregor including his Chroma, FAR and Live fire exercise, and I was also impressed by Dyad 1929 when it was first shown in Australia in 2009. This time I didn’t get the feeling that the dancers saw any diversity within the work. They all performed the steps very nicely but brought little else. After The Four Temperaments and Bella Figura it was a disappointment, not so much choreographically as in terms of performance.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2013

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Season's greetings 2012 bannerThank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

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‘FAR’. Random Dance

11 October 2012, Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Wayne McGregor’s works are always accompanied by intellectually demanding notes and explanations. FAR is no exception. Made originally in 2010, it is according to McGregor inspired by a study of the Enlightenment by English academic Roy Porter entitled Flesh in the Age of Reason (from which comes, as an acronym, the name of McGregor’s work).

However, I am a fan of the now probably outmoded concept of ‘intentional fallacy’ whereby the artist’s intention is not a standard for judging the success or failure of a work. While it is always interesting to read what the artist believes is the intention of, or forms the inspiration for a work, the work has to stand on its own and must be open to the necessarily varied interpretations of the audience.

FAR begins with a duet, which can only be described as a passionate, if somewhat acrobatic, exploration of the boundaries of what the body can do in dance. The couple, a man and a woman, are attended by four black-clad figures holding flaming torches. These figures vanish quietly and almost imperceptibly one by one throughout the duet. The dancers perform to an 18th century aria, Sposa son disprezzata (‘I am wife and I am scorned’) by Gemininao Giacomelli and sung by Cecilia Bartoli, and the whole is extraordinarily emotional.

But this lush opening gives way to the hard edge of the 21st century as a growling electronic score by Ben Frost takes over and the flicker of torches is replaced by LED lighting (design by Lucy Carter) in the form of five rows of tiny tubes projecting from a rectangular, white board, which occupies much of the back section of the stage. The choreography too seems to lose its fluidity and becomes more angular, and full of flicking hands and very busy bodies.

Occasionally one might read a narrative line into some sections. There are moments when the dancers seem to engage in an argument for example as they push each other around. Occasionally too the ensemble of ten dancers moves as one and this comes as something of a shock to the eye after the seemingly random structuring of bodies on stage. A duet for two men is a highlight, as is a brief moment when two dancers crouch low together on the stage holding a difficult pose on half pointe.

The work closes with another strong duet for a man and a woman in which the woman’s body in particular is often stretched taut, as if to balance the rippling bodies that we have seen in abundance throughout the work. In the final moments the man lowers the woman to the floor, leaves her lying there and walks off.

Some may have seen in this work a connection between body and soul, which was at the heart of Porter’s investigations into the 18th century mode of thinking and behaving. I didn’t think about it as I watched the show. More than anything, seeing McGregor’s tangled yet clearly articulated choreographic moves is a treat, especially when performed by the athletic dancers who make up Random Dance. It was a pleasure to see Anthony Whitely again too, now dancing with Random Dance after his stint with Sydney Dance Company.

FARThe closing duet from FAR.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2012

‘Ballo della regina’, ‘Live fire exercise’, ‘DGV’. The Royal Ballet

Every time I visit London and am lucky enough to see a performance by the Royal Ballet I am bowled over. The recent mixed bill of Balanchine’s Ballo della regina, Wayne McGregor’s brand-new Live fire exercise and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse) simply reinforced my view that the Royal is at a high point in its career—so many dancers of star quality or star potential, a coaching team that appears to work on developing a clear understanding of what lies behind each work and great programming.

Balanchine’s Ballo della regina opened this program. On the night I went, leading roles were danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. It was especially rewarding to see Cuthbertson take command of a role so closely associated with that great American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who created the leading female role in 1978. On stage Ashley always looked as American as apple pie, you might say, with her glowingly healthy face, her forthright (and fabulous) technique, and a kind of no holds barred, no nonsense approach. Cuthbertson, however, had a different approach. Ashley showed the steps, and how she showed them. Cuthbertson, with a lighter frame than Ashley, seemed to emphasis not so much individual moments but an overall fluidity. This is not to say that her dancing lacked highlights. Her ability alter direction suddenly and to move with unexpected changes of speed was a real delight. And there was not a moment when she faltered. It was a great performance.

As for Polunin he had nothing to live up to as Robert Weiss, who partnered Ashley in 1978, never in my opinion really made the role his own. Polunin knocked me for six with his ability to cover space—the extension of the front leg in movements like grands jetés en avant was like an arrow speeding forward on a perfect course. And then there was the clarity of his beats and the perfection of his turns.

Four soloists—Melissa Hamilton stood out in particular—and a beautifully rehearsed corps de ballet made this Ballo a special treat.

Wayne McGregor’s Live fire exercise, made in collaboration with artist John Gerrard, on the surface could hardly have been more different. The starting point was a US army exercise in the Djibouti desert, a detonation designed to prepare troops for the physical effects of the mortar rounds or road side bombings they may encounter. A screen occupied a large part of the upstage area. On it was a projection of a desert scene and over time we saw the arrival of trucks and other machinery, a blast and the subsequent plume of fire and its smoky aftermath. In front of this video installation three men and three women performed McGregor’s demanding, highly physical choreography. In the background Michael Tippet’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli provided, almost as a juxtaposition, a kind of pastoral accompaniment.

McGregor’s choreography in Live fire exercise, showed his signature extensions with the dancers’ legs pushed high into positions that destroy the usual line of classical ballet, along with his approach to partnering with its emphasis on curved, twisted and folded bodies, and with his use of extreme falls. At one point Sarah Lamb performed a promenade in attitude on a bent supporting leg. She was supported in this by Eric Underwood who, once the circle of the promenade had been completed, swiftly lifted her and with a swirl threw her through the air. She travelled through the air, looking light as a feather with a perfectly held body, into the arms of another dancer. For me this moment put McGregor in a new light and his ability to use the classical vocabulary, and then to manipulate it became clear.

Overall, and almost unbelievably, the choreography seemed quite calm and considered. Throughout the piece single dancers occasionally stood quietly beside the video installation. They were lit so as to appear shadowy, isolated human beings figures against the plume of fire or smoke. They drew our attention from the choreography back to the footage and also served to remind us of the content of this footage and its underlying political message. Live fire exercise is the most personal of the works of McGregor that I have seen to date

In addition to Lamb and Underwood the cast comprised Cuthbertson, Polunin, Akane Takada, Federico Bonelli and Ricardo Cervera.

Closing the evening, Wheeldon’s DGV was something of a letdown. DGV is set to a score by Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à grande vitesse), and draws inspiration from the idea of a journey with the French very fast train (TGV) the source of both Nyman’s and Wheeldon’s title. The work is essentially a series of four pas de deux with a corps to ballet of another eighteen dancers who often also work in pairs. It shows Wheeldon’s exceptional ability to create mesmerisng duets and his capacity to move large groups of people around the stage to create strong visual imagery. It was beautifully danced, especially by the corps and without a perfect corps the patterns falls apart, which they certainly didn’t on this occasion.

But I found the work a little repetitive and somewhat soporific. Maybe it was simply that it came after the McGregor with its underlying message of the politics of war? McGregor pushes his audience, Wheeldon doesn’t, or didn’t with DGV. Nevertheless DGV completed a wonderfully diverse and fabulously performed evening of dance.

Michelle Potter, 27 May 2011

‘Entity.’ Random Dance

28 January 2011, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival, 2011

Wayne McGregor’s Entity, performed by his company Random Dance as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival, begins and ends with black and white footage of a greyhound in motion. It may be or be based on the work of the nineteenth-century, British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of the physics of animal locution. It certainly recalls the work of Muybridge. To me this visual clue is of far greater import and carries much more interest for the viewer than any amount of philosophical discussion of McGregor’s research project ‘Choreography and cognition’ and his work with neuroscientists, as fascinating as those and other aspects of McGregor’s career are.

Entity shows the remarkable ability of the human body to move, bend, twist, flex, soar and travel. Like the greyhound the dancers are sleek. Their limbs extend and reach outwards. Their bodies are stretched long and lean. They use their muscles efficiently. They move with intention. In their black briefs and white T-tops, dispensed with towards the end to reveal black bra tops on the women and for the men a bare upper body, they hover on the edge of classical movement before morphing into strange new shapes. They twist and contort their bodies with one recurring motif being an arched spine with backside pushed out, the antithesis of the classically stretched spine with the head balanced perfectly at the top. Bodies are in constant dialogue with each other and the movement screams out its edginess.

Danced to a score by Joby Talbot followed by another from Jon Hopkins, the work is set in an enclosed space consisting of three light coloured, translucent screens, one at each side and one at the back of the stage area. Designed by Patrick Burnier they can be manipulated by a (viewable) mechanical system and lit when required. When lit (design by Lucy Carter) their internal structure is further revealed. During the second part of the work the screens rise above the dancers and are enhanced by video projections. From my position towards the back of the circle of the Sydney Theatre it was not entirely clear what the projections were other than they seemed to be various formulae. Part of the choreographer’s fascination with mathematical and engineering principles?

But in the end Entity is about McGregor’s choreography and about his attitude to how the body can move in this present day and age. It makes me long to see more of McGregor’s work, especially when danced by intensively trained ballet dancers. There are some great scenes of McGregor rehearsing Genus, his work for the Paris Opera Ballet, along with brief excerpts from the work in performance in the recent film La danse. While Random Dance performed superbly in Sydney, there is something additional in the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet perform. There is a certain security in the way they move, an inherent understanding of the body, something deeply intuitive about movement, that allows McGregor’s classical references to be offset in a particular way. The mix of the classical and the restive tension of today becomes heightened and makes us see both and all more clearly.

Although this is a little simplistic, McGregor reminds me of Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe rolled into one. He’s a formalist. He dispenses with fussy costumes and decorative sets. And he has a remarkable intellectual curiosity. It makes for unusual and ultimately satisfying dance, which in its essence is purely McGregor.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2011

‘Chroma’, ‘Tryst’, ‘Symphony in C’. The Royal Ballet

If the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill of Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C did anything, it showed quite clearly that ballet is not dead, dying or even momentarily dormant as has occasionally been debated on this site. It is in full swing, vibrant, growing gloriously and proudly relishing both its heritage and its future—at least in London.

Although I was looking forward most to Wayne McGregor’s Chroma after seeing his Dyad 1929 in Australia in 2009, it was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which closed the Royal Ballet’s program, that was the standout work for me. The array of principals was simply dazzling and their dancing was equally dazzling.

Leanne Benjamin, partnered by Johan Kobborg, led the first movement. She was beautifully self assured, a ballerina always aware of her audience with a technique that shone from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Alina Cojocaru, partnered by Valeri Hristov, was grace and poetry epitomised in the second, andante movement. In particular, Cojocaru’s exquisite arabesques traced a long, expressive arc through space as the leg lifted and once the high point had been reached the line seemed to extend forever. Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae in the third section performed in almost perfect unison, fulfilling the challenging requirement of the choreography for this scherzo movement. It was a thrilling display with Marquez performing the almost unimaginable by not only keeping up with McRae’s stunning jumps and turns but doing it with an expression of joy coursing through her whole body. In the fourth movement, before all the principals joined them for the final section, Laura Morera and Richard Cervera made a strong impression.

In each movement, the corps de ballet and soloists provided a beautifully executed backdrop of dancing for the principals. Symphony in C was staged for the Royal by Patricia Neary and a huge bouquet must go to her for giving such clarity to a work that can too often have a look of sameness across its movements.

The program opened with Chroma, Wayne McGregor’s 2006 commission for the Royal. As in his Dyad 1929 McGregor explored the extreme possibilities of the human body in motion. However, with Chroma being performed without the women wearing pointe shoes, the choreography had a quite different feel, more fluid perhaps, or more complex in its exploration of how the torso and upper limbs can bend, fold and extend.

The outstanding feature of Chroma to my mind though was its collaborative aesthetic and what emerged as a result. The set by architect John Pawson was extreme in its minimalism and reflected Pawson’s interest in Cistercian architecture with its emphasis on simplicity and the stripping back of non-essential elements of colour and embellishment. At first the set seemed to consist of a large screen or wall stretching across the stage space. It was positioned about one third of the way down the stage and appeared to have a white rectangle set slightly above the stage floor at its centre. But as the set was lit (by Lucy Carter) in different shades of white, grey and black, it became clear that the rectangle was actually a void. In it we occasionally saw dancers appear and disappear and we watched as the rectangle/void advanced and receded with changes in lighting.

Against the simplicity of the set, with its clean shapes, limited colour palette and play with volume and void, McGregor’s choreography looked on the one hand even more complex and exploratory, yet on the other it was tempered by the lack of overt scenic embellishment. It was an intellectual exercise in contrast to the Balanchine ‘don’t think, just do’ principle.

The third work on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst looked a little contrived eight years after its premiere, especially during the first movement when its upturned feet and awkward contractions of the arms from the elbow looked awkward and without purpose. The high point of this work has always been the central pas de deux and on this occasion Sarah Lamb, with her beautifully proportioned body, danced eloquently.

Symphony in C was danced to the Bizet work of the same name, Chroma was danced to an amalgam of music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III and Tryst was danced to an orchestral work by James MacMillan. Each was conducted by a different conductor with Tryst being conducted the composer.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2010

Postscript: on a musical note it was refreshing to see that the dancers acknowledged the orchestral players with due deference by bowing when the conductor asked that the musicians be acknowledged. The Australian Ballet habit of having the dancers lean into the orchestra pit and clap for what seems like an inordinate amount of time seems to me undancerly and to be taking acknowledgment too far.

‘Por vos muero.’ The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill Concord is currently in its Sydney season. It’s at the Opera House until 30 November.

Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 is as startling as ever, although the cast I saw did not manage to achieve the same degree of technical precision and sense of purpose that made the opening night in Melbourne this past August such a brilliant occasion. Alexei Ratmansky’s Scuola di Ballo remains pantomime for those who like their ballet that way. As for Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero, it continues to give and give of itself in a way that only the very best works of art can do.

Por vos in its Australian Ballet production goes back to the directorship of Ross Stretton who introduced it to Australian audiences in 2000. Who can forget the ravishing Felicia Palanca in the leading female role in that first season? Her passion for her role knew no bounds. But then who can forget Daniel Gaudiello on opening night in Melbourne this year with his capacity to show to advantage the intricacies of Duato’s choreography?

On the second matinee of the Sydney season no dancer really stood out, which allowed the opportunity to think more about the work itself, especially its seamless yet choreographically idiosyncratic duets, its use of humour and its delicious sensuousness. In fact it sent me back to the DVD to look more closely at how Duato had structured the work and at his use of props, especially the masks in his dance for six women and his decorative screens at the back of the stage space and the way they were used by the dancers to link each section.

But in addition I turned on the DVD’s subtitles and saw for the first time an English translation of the narrator’s Spanish words. The work stands brilliantly by itself—no translation of the words is necessary to feel that it is about love and passion in their many manifestations. Duato also explains on the DVD that everyone danced in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain: dance was not thought of as an art but simply as a way of expressing oneself on pretty much any occasion. Such a desire to dance is also inherent in the choreography without our being told. Both the words of the narrator and Duato’s explanation simply confirm what we know. Por vos is an exceptional work.

But the words of the narrator are deeply affecting. As six dancers, clothed in stripped back skin-coloured costumes, move off and give up the stage for a final solo by the leading female dancer, whose consort appears in the closing moment to enfold her in his arms, we are told:

For thee I was born/Through thee I have life/For thee I must die/And for thee I die.

Por vos is an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2009

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Por vos muero, 2009. Photo: © Jim McFarlane.

‘Concord’. The Australian Ballet

Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: Jim McFarlane. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: © Jim McFarlane. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.

Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.

But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.

Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.

This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.

The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case  choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.

Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.

And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.

Michelle Potter, 23 August 2009

Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are  easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.

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