The Australian Ballet is celebrating 50 years. I would’ve like to have been a fly on the wall for its very first season in 1962 in which, as in the current one, it championed new Australian work. What could be more authentically, quintessentially Aussie, after all, than Rex Reid’s Melbourne Cup?
Our cultural breadth and depth may have exceeded the bounds of our number one horse race but, under the artistic leadership of David McAllister, the AB still backs homegrown talent. Infinity is the first programme for this anniversary year and its expansive title encompasses three brand-spanking-new, original, all-Australian works, from three very different choreographers.
The indefatigable, Peter Pan-like Graeme Murphy surpasses himself and most of the rest yet again with The Narrative Of Nothing, a work celebrating the freedom of abstracted movement. Murphy rightly observes that, from childhood on, we’re not only more than capable but inevitably, irresistibly prone to writing our own stories; all we need are the merest cues and suggestions. As usual, he collaborates with Janet Vernon: it’s a dance partnership as Siamese as Fonteyne and Nureyev, or Rogers and Astaire.
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Composer Brett Dean was commissioned and came up with Fire Music, which Murphy has used as a platform, scaffolding, springboard (call it what you will) and inspiration. No instructions or requests were issued: Dean was given an open brief. The result is haunting, even menacing; with unusual instrumental interpolations, such as a distorted electric guitar. Thanks to Bob Scott’s unusually enveloping surround sound design, we hear a snare here, or a ‘bone there. (It put me in nostalgic mind of the advent of quadrophonic hi-fi.) It’s primal and powerful.
Damien Cooper’s stage and lighting design is dramatic, too. When I say stage design, we’re really talking about a lack of it, which is just as Murphy wanted it: “I gave a brief to do a design in light, eliminating the physical distraction of decor”, with the resplendent result a “focus on clarity of body form.” Jennifer Irwin’s body-hugging costumes lend a kind of reptilian sleekness to the dancers and the overall effect is one of a veritable creation myth. Again, just as Murphy (and Vernon) would have it, we find ourselves, “by nature’s strange design, like children who, gazing upwards, find dragons in the clouds”.
Murphy hardly needs to deploy this poetic metaphor verbally, since it’s implicit to his choreography which is every inch as bold, beautiful, modern and original as we’ve come to associate with this living national treasure. GM has taken aspects of both classical and contemporary dance vocabulary, built upon and subverted it, until it’s teased into something entirely fresh, incorporating a number of elements which are admirable for their organic mimicry of nature, in which an ensemble of performers unfolds, like a flower; splits, like an atom; coalesces, like a hungry, cell-gobbling amoeba. At another moment, we might be impressed by linear simplicity, bursting with rhythm, almost as if he’s posthumously enabled a Mondrian to realise a new channel for ‘the style’.
Portrayed through a sequence of vignettes, here is, not only the birth of humankind, but the whole of creation and evolution, from the first spark to a roaring bonfire set to conflagrate us all. Well, something like that, for mine. And that’s the elegant point of the work: we will, each and all, find our own way; write our own story. This is the wonder of abstraction. It affords a thousand narrative opportunities, rather than being confined, or confining itself, to but one.
Even by Murphy’s surpassing, benchmark-setting standards, it’s a tight, triumphant, yet unpretentious work; even if one that allows the AB’s almost impossibly talented and skilled dancers the glory of some spectacular new moves that will, almost literally, steal your breath away. It’s desperately hard and wildly arbitrary to point to standouts since, from duets to grand ballabile scenes, all display the utmost aplomb, no matter the degree of difficulty.
Like The Narrative Of Nothing, There’s Definitely A Prince Involved is a premiere of a brand new work, in this case choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov; the former being considered the most influential ballet master that’s ever donned a slipper), who brings his ‘chunky moves’ to ballet. In preparing for his commission, he contemplated the very meaning of ballet and asked friends and associates what they knew of it. The general level of ignorance appears to have been staggering: the one ready association seems to have been Swan Lake, albeit with much confusion about the story and many highly-personalised variations. Obarzanek has appropriated some of these responses and interpolated them into his ballet, which features music by Stefan Gregory; after the master, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The first moments are spellbinding, given the rich aural and visual heritage of the work and stunning design, by Alexi Freeman (costume), GO himself and, perhaps above all, Benjamin Cisterne (lighting). The opening scene is in sepia but, as the dancers gracefully cavort around, one or other costumes betrays its colour. It’s a novel and truly beautiful spectacle, which brings to the fore the very best notions of cinema and, also, traditional scenography, by dint of gorgeous, pseudo-period backdrops. Freeman has metamorphosed the dancers into sleek, feathered swans, which ably assists Obarzanek’s flowing choreography. It’s all very classical, at first. But then he interposes the unexpected: dancers as narrators.
In a similar way to the advent of documentary theatre, Obarzanek and the AB has introduced something quite radical, which might be called documentary ballet. Firstly, it pays homage to the greatness of the creators of Swan Lakebut, without any disrespect, subverts it by way of tracts of text excerpted from his interrogations of colleagues. He may lose a few friends, should they recognise their own words and see their lack of knowledge and cultural awareness promulgated in the nation’s capitals. And it must, surely, be the first time ballerinas and ballerinas have had to learn lines. And, while they may not all be James Earl Joneses as narrators, none miss a beat and do reflect the ordinariness of responses Obarzanek got to his question, “what can you tell me about ballet?”. Whether deliberately or accidentally, the outcome is quite comical; though sweetly so.
The danger is, of course, doing damage to or trivialising a seminal icon of the ballet. But the line seems to be negotiated sensitively, so that any mockery is directed towards the tragic romantic ideal that underlies the tale of the prince and the swan (if only he’d had spectacles to correct his shortsightedness, the whole, doomed affair might never have happened) and our unwitting determination, despite outward cynicism, bitter experience and seeming sophistication, to cleave to it.
The other danger is that Obarzanek distracts and detracts from his own, exquisite choreographic adaptations but, happily, these are so transcendent in their sensual form as to easily obliterate it. Here are veritable swans, those incongruously awkward-yet-elegant birds, caught in intimate moments; revelling in each other, in a kind of ornithological love-in. They caress and converge; fuse and fly away. Obarzanek, coming from jet outside the balletic tent, has suggested, explored and opened-up entirely new possibilities as to where ballet might go.
From a programatic or curatorial standpoint, too, it’s wonderful that the debut of three original, homegrown ballets should be so different from each other. McAllister has made audacious and laudable decisions; perhaps his most interesting and captivating to date and very much up to the challenge of celebrating half a century with surpassing savoir-faire.
The final work is by Stephen Page of Bangarra fame, one which consolidates a relationship between indigenous and European dance and other traditions begun in 1997, with Rites and revisited twice since. As well, of course, Page has been commissioned on his own behalf, on behalf of the AB, on at least another occasion. Jessica Wells has done a marvellous job of orchestrating David Page’s compositions; always so listenable and nourishing in their own right.
With every new work, Page seems to find and bring to the table new influences. Jacob Nash’s eye, as set designer, seems to be finely attuned to SP’s singleminded visions: a bare tree, for example, becomes an anchor, a cornerstone motif depicting country and culture. Jennifer Irwin clads the dancers such that they appear (and, thus, for all intents and purposes are) intrinsic to and inseparable from the landscape, while Bob Scott’s sound design adds drama and a sense of the expansiveness of both the outback and the ‘wayback’.
Warumuk (In The Dark Night) draws on Dhuwa and Yirritja songs and stories from Northeast Arnhemland, as does the corpus of Page’s and Bangarra’s work. There’s a sense of the sacred and inviolable about it. It has the gravitas of, say, a Tibetan monk’s chant, or a chorale cantata by Bach (who, after all, was a great fan of dance forms). And while the idea of reconciliation might’ve lapsed into a political no man’s land which would have it regarded as passé, surely there can be no better, higher, or more dynamic expression of it than in the passionate merging of black and white when the AB and Bangarra join forces, enthusiastically embracing “each other’s dance language to awaken a distinctive contemporary style”.
Page is quick to underscore the contributions of his collaborators and, certainly, it’s a whole grater than the sum of any one part. Nonetheless, he is the prime mover, driver and facilitator of excellence, encouraging his brother to rise to the challenge of composing for orchestral instruments, which still had had to make sense of Yolngu songs, language and the innate ‘hum of the land’. Allusions here are to the night sky, an Aboriginal astronomy and the myths that have been inspired by such. Padraig O’Suilleabhain’s lighting design conspires with Nash’s set to take us on a journey of profound mystery. The dancers becomes instruments for telling stories about phenomena far bigger than ourselves and this, to my mind, is Page’s overearching contribution to culture: reminding us of the universal and timeless, in an age where we’re obsessed with the personal.
It’s The Milky Way, the tides, the Moon and the lunar eclipse which have celebrity (or ought), not any of us. We aren’t just people, but people living in relationship: to each other, the land and nature at large, watched over by a myriad of real stars Page and his dancers reinvigorate this truth with forceful articulateness, love and athleticism.
And, of course, none of it would be possible without the superlative support of Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Bravo.
Infinity, through the individual and collective genius of three of our finest, gifted collaborators and extraordinary dancers, shows just how much scope ballet can have and how broad its appeal can be. McAllister and the AB have set an interesting new course for the next half-century and I, for one, am very much on-board.
The details: Infinity plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 25. Tickets on the company website.