Tristan Message. Photo Tim Richardson
Each year The Australian Ballet presents a triple bill season which usually features modern work and at least one world premiere. Concord is that program for 2009 and its three pieces couldn’t be more diverse. In many ways they sit oddly next to each other, but on the other hand, the variety means there is something for everyone, from the classical lovers to those who like their ballet more edgy.
For the past four years The AB has been celebrating the Ballet Russes and its influence on the development of ballet and modern dance in Australia. Many recent seasons have included new interpretations of works that were originally from the Ballet Russes period (Graeme Murphy’s Firebird, Krzysztof Pastor’s Symphonie Fantastique) or direct recreations of dances made by choreographers involved with the Ballet Russes (Leonide Massine’s Les Presage, Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Spectre de la Rose).
In the spirit of the inventiveness and innovations within ballet during the era of the Ballet Russes, Concord features, according to artistic director David McAllister, “three of the most important choreographers working today” who are creating works that “will boldly take us forward into the future.” While there is truth to this statement, Concord’s main distinction is its variety, which, whether one likes the works or not, shows the incredible versatility and physical abilities of the dancers themselves. That they can jump from contemporary dance to comic ballet to post modern choreography within the space of two 20 minute intervals and perform each style confidently is quite extraordinary.
Concord’s closest connection to Ballet Russes is through Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky whose contribution is a reworking of Leonide Massine’s comedic piece Scuola Di Ballo. It is set in a 19th century ballet academy and has exactly the same type of characters that populate today’s dance schools and eisteddfods – the pushy stage mother, the teacher’s pet, the clumsy try hard and the frustrated instructor. Even though it’s a new take, there’s not much that feels contemporary about this piece, except for Hugh Colman’s asymmetrical set. A mix of pantomime and narrative with technically difficult divertissements, it retains the commedia dell árte tradition that influenced Massine. Jane Casson as Felicita, the bad student, was undeniably the star on opening night, tripping over herself, trying to keep up with the good students and working too hard to impress the teacher, falling out of her fouette turns while the other ballerinas kept perfect balance. While the work is a great vehicle for Casson (and whoever else will play Felicita throughout the season), most of the other parts are more straight character roles. Having not seen Massine’s original, it’s hard to know how much is reworked and what is actually new about Ratmansky’s interpretation. It was clearly a crowd pleaser and opening night’s cast was commendable, but on this work alone, I am not convinced of Ratmansky’s status as a trailblazing choreographer.
To then follow with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 is quite a jump. The music is by Steve Reich, a composer who has become a staple within contemporary ballet/post modern dance. McGregor and his design collaborator Lucy Carter rise above that cliché though. The set – a white floor and back wall dotted with black polka dots, framed by an imposing horizontal yellow fluorescent light that lowers and lifts, is imposing and evokes everything from constellations to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, bumble bees to organisms bouncing through the atmosphere. It’s visually impressive and spectacularly transforms the State Theatre into something entirely other, allowing the dancers to go to new places as artists.
While the sound is relentless, the choreography also goes along at a break neck pace, but has respite. There’s a mechanical drive as dancers wrap around each other and spin like tops. There’s a continual play of dancers retracting and sliding off of each other, like atoms in a force field. McGregor’s choreography is intricate, playing with a constant push/pull dynamic. It is fast and requires isolation of body parts as well as coordinating different but simultaneous actions in upper and lower limbs. As the piece progressed and the opening night nerves died down, the ensemble found the right dynamic and relaxed into the work enough to achieve the quick shifts. Tzu-Chao Chou and Lana Jones in duet were stand out, as was Remi Wortmeyer. It’s a challenging and electrifying work that will grow as it continues to be performed and is a great addition to the AB’s contemporary repertoire.
Opening the program is Nacho Duato’s Por Vos Muero which was first performed by the AB in 1998 but has not been seen recently. Like Ratmansky and McGregor, Duato is a global player in the world of modern choreography. It’s definitely worth a revisit, but it is starting to date. Featuring text of Garcilaso de la Vega (sensually vocalized by Miguel Bose), it shifts from the minimal to the medieval, from dancers in fleshy briefs doing simple slow motion running to swirling ensembles featuring capes and masks, all to a score of fifteenth and sixteenth century Spanish music. While there are some strong pas de deux sections, the ensemble work was not always as tight as it could be and the heavy, dark costumes do not particularly flatter. It works best in the opening and closing, beautifully simple and pared back sections.
More than foreseeing the future of ballet, Concord presents three eras within ballet’s development. Relying on a narrative structure, historical costuming and some of the formal elements of classical dance, Scuola di Ballo sits as the oldest. Por Vos Muero is a strong representation of modern ballet/dance of the 1980s/1990s, while Dyad 1929 sits more in the post modern camp. All have different strengths and attractions and form a triple bill that is special because of its diversity and its committed, versatile dancers.
The Australian Ballet presents
Venue: the State Theatre, the Arts Centre
Dates: 21 August – 1 September
Tickets: $31 - $120
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | www.ticketmaster.com.au