The Australian Ballet’s contemporary offering for 2017 is a triple bill called Faster that aims to showcase the “intoxicating physical power of ballet”. Indeed, the physicality of the dancers takes centre stage as we see them tackle intricate, challenging and often quick choreography across the three pieces.
Dana Stephensen, Brooke Lockett and Jill Ogai in Faster. Photograph © Jeff Busby
It’s a pleasure to watch skilled technicians hard at work. Each choreographer pushes the dancers to new limits in very different ways. And while these differences are problematic for the programme as a whole, Faster offers enough reasons to appreciate the sophistication and allure of contemporary ballet and those who perform it.
The triple bill takes it title from the first work, Faster, choreographed by David Bintley for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Inspired by the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, the work seeks to reflect the athleticism of sport and the passion it can evoke. Basketball, fencing, synchronised swimming and a handful of other sports are represented on stage, at times very literally, together with more abstract explorations of defeat, injury and sacrifice.
Driving the piece is Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s commissioned score, which seeks to match the drama played out on stage. The music and choreography most effectively marry in the final movement where the dancers, decked out in fluorescent Lycra and sneakers, perform a rhythmic running sequence based on the ultimate Olympic event: the marathon. Overall, Faster offers some striking imagery. But in its attempt to represent the spectacle of elite sport on stage, Bintley’s choreography sometimes borders on gimmickry without ever fully embracing the comedic potential of the work.
Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Squander and Glory. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Squander and Glory by Resident Choreographer Tim Harbour follows. This new work is set to the heavily layered strings and unrelenting bass line of Michael Gordon’s Weather One, which offers little reprieve for the dancers (or audience) over its 20-minute duration. The choreography manifests itself in the extremes –hyperextended arm lines, deep lunges, curved torsos with extended legs in opposition – all danced at great speed. Harbour is dealing with excess human energy, and the ways it can be spent through movement. But energy does not always mean speed, and a little more space in the choreography would have allowed us to better appreciate its complexity. Worth mentioning is Kelvin Ho’s striking sculptural installation, which seemed to embody its own energy thanks to the clever lighting design of Benjamin Cisterne.
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Infra. Photograph @Jeff Busby
Rounding out the triple bill is Wayne McGregor’s Infra. Taking its cue from language’s potential to shape our perceptions, this work is ultimately about human encounters and the quiet intimacies created on stage. The choreography is exquisitely clear and precise, harnessing all forms of energy to inscribe moments of deep connection that dissolve as quickly as they form. Accompanying the dance is Max Richter’s stirring score that balances orchestral strings with electronic sounds and distortion. Of all three works in the programme, Infra is the one that most sharply reveals the thin line separating the physicality of ballet and human emotion. This is McGregor’s genius and it’s hard not to be impressed.
Overall, Faster offers three works that are very different in their artistic intention and choreographic direction. While speed or energy may be the loose, linking theme, the three choreographers have explored these elements to varying degrees of success, resulting in a programme that relies on the physical prowess of its performers to find cohesion. But maybe that’s enough. If the aim is to be intoxicated by the feats being accomplished on stage, Faster gives us ample opportunity to marvel at the athleticism of contemporary ballet.
The Australian Ballet’s Faster plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 7 – 26