Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

David Hallberg has given his directorship of the Australian Ballet a name, a conceptual idea, for us to ponder—’A New Era’. The company’s latest production, Kunstkamer, brings reality to Hallberg’s concept. Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?.

Inspired by an eighteenth-century publication Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and first performed by Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) in its 2019-2020 season, Kunstkamer (literally art room in Dutch) is the work of four choreographers, Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. Cabinets of curiosities date back several centuries and were collections of paintings and other items—curiosities—from around the world and were precursors to what we think of today as museums. Kunstkamer is a dance work in 18 separate sections and, to my mind, fits beautifully within the notion of a collection of unusual, beautiful, incredible items, and even within the idea of a room or several rooms containing such items.

Take the set by León and Lightfoot and the lighting (Tom Bevoort, Ubo Haberland and Tom Visser) for example. The set was architecturally inspired and as each dance section began the screens that made up the set slid into a new formation, or lighting changed our perspective of the ‘room’. It was as if we had moved from one room of a museum to another. Of course there are other ways of looking at how the set was used. Dancers entered and left through a series of doors built into one part of the set, often slamming them noisily. Coming and going. Changing styles. Any number of thoughts come to mind.

Then there were the various sections that made up the dance component. Each section was unique and all carried allusions of various kinds—to the work of other choreographers for example and William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián spring straight to mind. The opening scene for Part II, seen in the image below, was motionless but somehow incredibly moving and, as the dancer sat there, a front curtain descended and rose again reminding us of Forsythe’s Artifact. Then there were references to various trends in the visual arts, especially those of the late 19th, early 20th century; and even allusions to other theatrical styles, Butoh for example when dancers appeared white-faced and open-mouthed.

Opening scene from Part II, Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

As for the choreography, it was contemporary movement—angular poses, stretched limbs, movement that often seemed quite raw rather than controlled, but often an emphasis on group shapes and unison movement.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Kunstkamer, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer at the performance I saw was Benedicte Bemet, who seemed totally transformed. I have always admired her dancing but this time gone was the ‘ballerina look’ (as beautiful as that can be) and there onstage was an artist able to move into a new world when required. She was magnificent. I also particularly enjoyed the performances by Callum Linnane and Adam Bull and the very strong introductory moments from guest dancer Jorge Nozal, who appeared with NDT in the same role (described in the printed program as ‘the enigmatic ghost character’). But every dancer rose to the occasion brilliantly. I got the feeling that they just loved dancing Kunstkamer with all its weird and wonderful aspects, including the speech, often incomprehensible chatter, and the singing by the dancers that was included. The music itself was as as varied as the choreography and ranged from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and included at one stage a pianist playing onstage.

What an unbelievably incredible show this was from beginning to end! I understand it is being streamed on 10 June. If you can’t get to see it live, check out the streaming details.


Michelle Potter, 10 May 2022

Featured image: Benedicte Bemet in Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. March 2022

  • Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet

During March I watched a streamed showing of Anna Karenina from the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ukrainian-born choreographer (currently resident in the United States) Yuri Possokhov, this production of Anna Karenina premiered in 2021 in Adelaide with just a few performances, but its presentation in other States had to be cancelled, and cancelled, until March 2022 when it opened in Melbourne.

I was struck more than anything by the spectacular set design (Tom Pye), which for the most part was quite minimal but nevertheless evocative, and which frequently moved seamlessly to new features as locations changed. But I found the lighting (David Finn) quite dark for most of the production, with the major exception being the peasant-style ending, which I’m not sure was an essential part of the story to tell the truth. I’m not sure either if the consuming darkness was more a result of the streaming situation or part of the overall production. But the darkness was annoying.

There were some strong performances from Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky but perhaps the strongest characterisations came from Benedicte Bemet as Kitty and Brett Chynoweth as Levin. But I am not sure that this production is ideal for streaming and I am looking forward to seeing it live in Sydney in April.

Bendicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Anna Karenina. The Australia Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But on the issue of the history of productions based on the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina, I recently came across a ’Stage Direction’ article by Stephen A. Russell published on the website of the Sydney Opera House. It gave an interesting, short introduction to the variety of ways in which the novel has been used in a theatrical manner. The article is currently available at this link, although may not be there for the long term.

  • Henry Danton (1919-2022)

The death of leading dance personality Henry Danton was announced back in February. Read the obituary by Jane Pritchard published in The Guardian at this link.

Henry Danton also played a significant role in the growth of professional ballet in Australia. He was a guest artist with the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet over several years and during that time consistently partnered Lynne Golding, including in the National’s full-length production of Swan Lake and in Protée, staged for the company by Ballets Russes dancer Kira Bousloff before she moved to Perth to establish West Australian Ballet.

  • Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre recently announced the departure from the company of three dancers, wonderful artists who have given audiences so much pleasure in recent productions. Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi and Bradley Smith have left the company to pursue other options. All three are beautiful dancers and I’m sure their future careers will continue to give us pleasure.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Other news from Bangarra is that the company’s children’s show Waru—journey of the small turtle, cancelled last year due to COVID, will be coming to the stage later this year. Conceived and created by Stephen Page and Hunter Page-Lochard, along with former Bangarra dancers and choreographers Sani Townson and Elma Kris, Waru tells the story of Migi the turtle who navigates her way back to the island where she was born. Waru is on in Sydney from 24 September to 9 October 2022 in the Studio Theatre at Bangarra’s premises at Walsh Bay.

  • Russell Kerr (1930-2022)

Prominent New Zealand dance personality Russell Kerr died in Christchurch earlier this month. Read an obituary with a great range of images at this link. I am expecting an obituary from his close friend and colleague Jennifer Shennan shortly and will publish it on this site when received. For further material on Russell Kerr and his activities on this website follow this tag.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2022

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky in Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Sylvia. The Australian Ballet

16 November 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is one facet of Stanton Welch’s choreography that I always find admirable and exciting to watch. It is his ability to handle different groups of dancers on stage. He is able to give each group different steps to do and arrange them in different formations, while also achieving an overall cohesion. This ability to create choreography that is beautifully blended and yet has individuality within it was again on show in Sylvia, his new work for 2019. Unfortunately, none of the images to which I have access really shows that facet of his choreography but it was clearest in the penultimate scene from Act III when the life of Sylvia (Robyn Hendricks) with her beloved Shepherd (Callum Linnane) unfolded.

This second last scene was also the most enjoyable from the point of view of the narrative. The surprise of the children and grandchildren of Sylvia and the Shepherd appearing suddenly was a beautifully human touch, and again I was impressed by the dancing and stage presence of Yuumi Yamada as the couple’s Daughter. In this scene too David McAllister made a guest appearance as the Older Shepherd and reminded us of his qualities as a performer.

Robyn Hendricks as Sylvia and Callum Linnane as the Shepherd in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But the ease with which we could understand the narrative in this scene stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the ballet. The story was a very complex one and difficult to follow, especially in Act I when the scene was being set for what was to follow. Maybe it’s just one of those ballets that one has to see many times before any strength it has can be understood?

Both Hendricks and Linnane danced well especially in the various pas de deux that unfolded between them. Dana Stephensen as Artemis was also a strong performer and her partnership with Brodie James as Orion was also nicely executed. The final scene in which the two are united in the starry, heavenly environment was staged with evocative lighting by Lisa J Pinkham.

Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo Daniel Boud
Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I came away feeling frustrated. While Welch is a choreographer whose work I admire, dance doesn’t lend itself to the kind of complexities of storyline that Sylvia contains. I was reminded of a recent interview I did with contemporary choreographer Lloyd Newson in which he talked about why he introduced speech into his works. There are some things that dance can’t do, he believes, and he’s right. Even though he wasn’t talking about ballet his ideas are relevant, nevertheless, to all forms of dance.

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2019

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud