Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
November 5, 2015

The Australian Ballet largely cater for devotees of the poise and splendour of narrative works; those delicious, honeyed fables of romance and magic. But when on occasion they allow themselves to plug the lexicon of 19th–century ballet into the high-voltage power and break-neck velocity of the modern masters of the art form, the results are heart-stopping. Having such a savvy director at the helm of this company, namely David McAllister, this contemporary triple bill doesn’t swap the rigour of balletic discipline for unrestrained, bleeding-edge experimentalism. Shot through with the technical clout you would expect from this world-class company, 20:21 strikes a finely judge equilibrium between crafted execution and choreographic invention.

Created in 1972, Symphony in Three Movements is a study in vim and vigour; the epitome of the sleek, glossy, all-American polish of George Balanchine. Set to the music of his most fruitful collaborator, Igor Stravinsky, this score muddles in between the primordial wantonness of The Rite of Spring and the pared-back refinement of the composer’s neo-classical output, and an atmosphere of aesthetic transition is similarly superimposed on Balanchine’s movement.

Symphony in Three Movements (photo: Jeff Busby)

The glamorous dazzle of the opening tableaux – a chorus-line of ponytailed sirens who like athletic sculptures confidently strut through a succession of assertive geometric extensions – is counterbalanced with the graceful flow of a more traditional language. This fusion of angular logic and luxuriant elegance is distilled in the quietly virtuosic central pas de deux. Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes slip seamlessly from knock-kneed marionettes to delicate, long-limbed forms in a superbly controlled performance with a subtle undercurrent of sensuality.

Balanchine’s understanding and admiration of the itinerant energy in Stravinsky’s music, delivered with thrilling intensity by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, is touchingly reflected in the close mirroring of the choreography. Isolated trios of dancers engage in neat, clockwork mechanisms until, as the score builds in pace and complexity, the full company alight upon a rapid-fire sequence of limber arabesques and peppy pony-prances. It’s a high energy climax, although the suddenness and restraint of the final gesture feels like it short-changes both the audience and the dancers.

In the Upper Room (photo: Jeff Busby)

Closing the evening with a trusted favourite, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for almost two decades. With its playful combination of loose, flat-footed urban swagger and nimble, balletic finesse, underpinned by Philip Glass’ insistently upbeat minimalism, it’s easy to understand why this is such a consistently satisfying work. A driving moto perpetuo, figures flash past in a constantly turbo-charged string of small, frantic vignettes. In baggy striped pyjamas, red leotards or bare chested, these sprinting forms emerge from the darkness through the thick blanket of haze that fills the stage with breath-taking commitment. This is a marathon work that makes no concessions for lapses in stamina, and to the credit of the Australian Ballet, the ecstatic, unrestrained energy of this account was at fever pitch throughout.

In between these two tried and tested modern classics, resident choreographer Tim Harbour’s new work, Filigree and Shadow, detonates a seething mass of choreographic innovation that both astounds and confronts. If Balanchine can be said to channel beauty, and Tharp joy, then Harbour’s muse is raw, unfettered aggression. His collaborators, composers 48Nord, set designer Kelvin Ho, and lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, have created a dynamic canvas for Harbour’s brutal vortex. A tapered, sweeping wall casts shadows and reflects light as the dancers rage against the darkness, thurst onward by the relentless tempo of the throbbing electronica-heavy score which infects the space with a constant, livid sense of anxiety.

Filigree and Shadow (photo: Jeff Busby)

The dance is a scattershot of forked, sharply cut gestures and squat, brawny shapes of barely contained fury. Yet there is great beauty in this savagery; a magnetic, visceral drama that grabs you in a choke hold and refuses to let go. Filigree and Shadow may be unapologetic in its grit and violence, but this is no less than a 21st-century masterpiece.

The Australian Ballet present 20:21 at the Sydney Opera House until November 21.