Ballet is an art form with a reputation. It carries associations of tradition, wholesomeness and doll-like dancers moving with dainty precision. To see it live, though, shatters this music box image. The Australian Ballet’s Icons, a retrospective of classic pieces from the company’s history, showcases a style of dance that is dynamic, vigorous and charged with emotion.
The show celebrates the company’s fifty year anniversary and features three pieces from different decades. From the sixties comes The Display, probably the first ever distinctly Australian ballet piece, choreographed by Robert Helpmann and featuring designs by Sidney Nolan. With lush backdrops, gauze curtains to create a misty bush dawn effect and a dancer in a magnificent lyrebird costume, it first appears like some kind of airy fantasy. In truth, it is a much more sinister story, detailing a country outing that through alcohol and male rivalry spins into violence. It’s like King Street at 3am, except presented in elegant dance. The tumultuous fight scene where the men circle and the women flutter around the combatants like startled birds is a wonderful combination of grace and ferocity. The figure of the lyrebird is both glamorous and threatening, its dance – which Helpmann based closely on the bird’s actual mating display – symbolic of bravado and sexual aggression.
This is followed by Glen Tetley’s Gemini, a blend of ballet and contemporary dance from 1973. It looks very seventies, with its hybrid dance style and a trippy striped backdrop, and is as mesmeric to watch as a lava lamp. There are two pairs of dancers, contrasting to each other as the male and female contrast within each couple, and all working together with seamless fluidity. The backdrop serves to highlight every movement, every shape formed by the conjunction and opposition of bodies. It makes for a breathtaking display of physical artistry.
The night culminates and hits its emotional peak with Beyond 12. Commissioned in 1980 and choreographed by Graeme Murphy, this piece follows the career of a male ballet dancer through three life stages. First as a prepubescent boy, playing football but realising his dream is to dance, then as a professional dancer and young man in love, finally as a thirty-something, having to walk away from the art that has been his life. Beginning with bright colour and visual humour, including a triumphant scene where an AFL goalpost is pulled down and turned into a ballet bar, it plots an increasingly emotive course. The scene where the three male leads dance together – the mature man, in effect, entwined with his younger selves – is as heartrendingly beautiful a piece of dance as you could imagine.
Given ballet’s reputation for being steeped in tradition, it is astounding to see how strongly each piece captures the feel of the decade in which it was born and also how distinctly Australian they are. Icons is both a tremendous showcase of the Australian Ballet’s work and of the vitality and expressive power of ballet itself.
The Australian Ballet Presents
Supported by the Australian Ballet Society
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: August 30 - September 7