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Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
May 1, 2014
Variety, they say, is the spice of life, and if contemporary dance is your thing the Australian Ballet’s triple bill, going by the name of the opening work, Chroma, is a great night out. And good news too if you’re a classical balletomane with a phobia for the more industrial side of modern dance – there is little to fear here in an evening that is in more ways than one a contemporary homage to the past.
The new first, and Wayne McGregor’s 2006 Royal Ballet commission, Chroma, is probably the most ‘out there’ work on the program – a piece which apparently had clubbers cheering in the aisles along with the regular Covent Garden patrons on its first showing. It certainly sounds groovy, being a mixture of Joby Talbot’s original music and hits by the White Stripes. From the first noir-infused arrangement of Aluminium from the White Blood Cells album (a definite whiff of Gotham City in the air), through a string of recognisable arrangements, it’s a marvellous score (I was reminded of the American composer Michael Torke). And it was marvellous too to hear it played with such verve by the Australian Ballet Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon.
McGregor requires his dancers to work as if extreme is the new normal. Advanced extensions and mechanical responses can be demanded at any moment, rather than as the climax of a sequence of movements. That the ten dancers never make any of that ‘show’ is perhaps the biggest tribute you can pay them. It’s frequently austerely beautiful yet, like Talbot’s score, it has moments of excess and is unfailingly watchable. There’s a playful rivalry at work too – the duos often flirt with ideas of conflict, competition and sexual foreplay. The penultimate pas de deux shows McGregor at his most classical, capable of long-breathed lines and great delicacy before all gives way to the frenetic final company number.
At its ‘poppiest’, Chroma has a contemporary hipness about it that renders it supremely entertaining. Not bad for a choreographer whose work is supposedly so often rooted in the ways and means of the cerebral cortex.
For the evening’s middle section, The Australian Ballet has chosen to present a new work, Art to Sky, by resident choreographer Stephen Baynes. This was the something borrowed bit. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Orchestral Suite – Mozartiana – the music is Tchaikovsky’s romantic homage to Mozart’s classicism, as the dance is Baynes’ contemporary choreographic homage to Tchaikovskian classical ballet.
In a vaguely narrative driven work, what look like four sleeping beauties are woken by as many princes in a fluid sequence of numbers each redolent of a different motif of classical ballet. An intermittently attractive work, with some mildly humorous moments, there’s nothing here that would feel out of place in a McMillan ballet. Indeed the impressive Lana Jones is required at one point to be passed between three men in a scene highly reminiscent of the salon scene in Manon. Nice work from the orchestral concertmaster too – it can’t be easy to keep all those violin decorations in strict time in the lengthy theme and variations movement.
The work is beautifully lit, setting it in a sort of haunted fairy-tale forest of the imagination. Compared to Chroma, or the works that followed, Art to Sky is an unambitious work, elegant, yes, but more derivative than daring. Still, those who feel that contemporary dance is a medicine to be taken occasionally and under duress will find this a choreographic spoonful of sugar.
Perhaps the most impressive dancing however was reserved for the finale – two works by the ever-fascinating Czech genius that is Jiří Kylián. The earliest works on the bill, and set to undiluted music by Mozart, this was the something old bit. Petite Mort (1991), with stunning lighting and visuals, begins with six men in fencing positions – a sabre a piece – with their ladies dimly perceived in the background. What follows is a dance of love and death, specifically the little death of the title, a metaphor for matters sexual…
With fiendishly tricky moves involving lifting swords with only your toes – and those sabres can have wills of their own – it is a big ask to get it tight and together. If the six men of the Australian Ballet could possibly use a few more hours in the studio to get it spot on, it’s nevertheless an impressive performance, exploiting every ounce of physicality that they possess. Just when you think you know where he’s going, Kylián takes you by surprise and the copulatory nature of the duos gives way to a playful section involving five women trundling on in detachable ball gowns.
That all this eroticism and swordplay is danced to a pair of slow movements from Mozart’s most popular piano concertos is Kylián’s way of showing the danger beneath the surface of the average relationship. It’s certainly more sexy than your average episode of Game of Thrones!
A brief pause and 1986’s Sech Tänze follows – a maniacal dance of madcap marionettes à la Mozart. A group of saucy, corseted women flash their nether parts while their shirtless, bewigged gentlemen expire in puffs of their own hair powder. It’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses meets dance, or rather more like the French and Saunders send up of same.
Kylián’s cartoonish movements are mastered to a tee by the dancers who are required to engage in a great deal of bottom work, alternately slipping, dragging and gliding across the floor. The trundling ladies from Petite Mort made a welcome reappearance and there’s a hysterical moment when two men discover a pair of empty ball gowns and just have to try them on for size.
As ballet goes, this isn’t arch or dancy-funny (ie. not really funny at all) – it’s really, really, joyously funny. Go see.