Australian Ballet in Vanguard of contemporary dance

Australian Ballet
Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre
May 18

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s triple bill which began the year's programme was a stunning success which showed a company on top of its game.

But the Australian Ballet’s comparable latest trio of works, Vanguard, showed what an extraordinary depth of talent that company has to offer.

Vanguard comprises three works which are essentially studies or reflections on the nature of dance, as well as providing an overview of contemporary dance of the last 100 years.

The first work on the programme was The Four Temperaments, choreographed by Balanchine with music by Hindemith. While the various sections portrayed the four temperaments or humours – melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric – this was more an opportunity for attempts to deal with the contrasting aspects of those temperaments: the male/female, the yin and yang, as well as the emotional and physical.

The male and female dancers responded to each other with conflicting and contrasting movements, creating varying tensions and attractions between them.

At times, the female dancers were manipulated as though they were mechanical dolls, with their arms, legs, heads and torsos becoming levers, pulleys and cogs, creating sharp angular positions and movements.

This was all something of a metaphor about how the body responds to internal and external forces, creating emotional and psychological states.

There were some supremely elegant passages where the physicality and the weight of bodies contrasted with the serpentine line of movement. At other times, they explored the ritualistic and naturalistic aspects of dance.

It was all done with a slight sense of parody of the classical form, but with a brilliance of articulation and style, and the dancers responding to Hindemith’s music, which ranged form the classical to the jazzy and syncopated.

Remarkable vignettes

Jiri Kylian, who has choreographed for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, had a work from 1995, Bella Figura (literally Beautiful Figures). The dance is filled with a series of remarkable vignettes from the opening sequence, which begins with some of the dancers in rehearsal mode testing themselves, flexing and preening,  with two bodies suspended in Perspex coffins above them – death?

When the dance begins a bare-breasted female, hinting at a sexual element, is alternately gripped by the curtains as though by a giant fist and then released, stepping forward to engage with the audience.

It was all a precursor of what was to come – an undercurrent of sensuality and mortality, the impact of sets and lighting on the dancers as well as the fragility of the human body.

The music which was mainly late baroque. Pergolesi, Torelli and Vivaldi reinforced these ideas of sex and death, with a couple of sopranos singing from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the haunting When my Body Decays.

As well as choreographing the work, Kylian has designed the set and worked closely with the lighting so there are a number of sequences where the curtains are used to frame, hide and interact with the dancers. The lighting was imaginatively used to create dark shadows, hidden places and to dramatically illuminate.

There was lots of vigorous movement, with a fine sense of physicality providing a contrast between the sensual and the robotic.

One particularly eloquent passage was danced in silence while another featured all the dancers – male and female – bare chested in voluminous red skirts which gave the work a surreal mixture of the primitive, the Orient and the catwalk.

The final work, Dyad 1929 choreographed by Wayne McGregor, revisited the innovative dance of the Ballet Russe in the early part of the 20th century. Performing to the minimalist music of Steve Reich, the dancers engaged in a series of episodes which unpicked the ideas of contemporary dance and reworked them into bizarre new dance explorations.

Postures, shapes and movement which had been seen in The Four Temperaments were here pushed to the limit so that there was an almost circus-style theatricality to some passages.

Future Melbourne performances:

Vanguard, June 6-17

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, June 21-July 1

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