Left – Sara Black and artists of The Australian Ballet (There's definitely a prince involved). Cover – Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia (Warumuk – in the dark night). Photos – Jeff Busby.
The Australian Ballet is celebrating its 50th birthday with a new production of three new dance works by Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek (ex-Chunky Move) and Stephen Page (Bangarra Dance Theatre). Classical, contemporary and indigenous dance come together on one bill, each section with its specially commissioned score. Infinity, as the title implies, has a broad vision, one that encompasses the bleak, the romantic and the spiritual under one banner. It is a vivid expression of Australian ballet today in all its permutations.
The evening opens with Murphy's aptly named The Narrative of Nothing. Murphy has broken free of the strictures of narrative to explore movement and its possibilities. Designer Damien Cooper's barren stage, lit by banks of harsh lights from the side and above is the perfect set for this bleak futuristic work. As the curtain rises, a swinging bare light bulb illuminates a lone figure twisting and writhing on the spot to Brett Dean's insistent, menacing score Fire Music. Indeed, over the course of this ballet, nothing does happen, and we return finally to the swinging light-bulb, redolent of torture and loneliness.
The Narrative of Nothing is an ensemble piece that has no room for star performances, even though Murphy, working with his creative associate Janet Vernon, has hand-picked some brilliant dancers for the occasion. The strength of this new work lies in the creation of atmosphere through the subtle interplay of music and choreography. The dancers are faceless, without identity, which accentuates the fluidity of their bodies, brought into focus by the sculpted metallic costumes of Jennifer Irwin, with their suggestion of sinew and muscle beneath the skin. Irwin also designed the costumes for Stephen Page's piece and there is a definite Bangarra earthiness in her work. But, for the rest, The Narrative of Nothing is a stark and cold work, with little to redeem the gloom in the way of emotion, character or nature.
Murphy's work sets a mood that is easily overturned by the irreverent Aussie approach of Gideon Oberzanek in There's definitely a prince involved, a quirky look at the iconic ballet Swan Lake and at the public's sketchy familiarity with ballet. Harking back to Oberzanek's roots in traditional ballet and using original backdrops and costumes, this is a light-hearted Gen Y take on tutus and entrechats, one that has the audience laughing out loud in recognition. Refreshingly democratic in sentiment, the work gives the swan-ballerinas a voice – literally, when they are handed a hand-held mike – and the story of Swan Lake is deconstructed, with the misgivings people have about ballet played out onstage. It is a daring move, introducing dialogue into ballet, but the audience found it a huge relief. In spite of the satirical slant and general silliness, there are moments of grace and beauty.
There is a thread that both links and distinguishes the three choreographers: sexuality. Where Murphy's piece feels asexual and evokes almost a coldness between men and women, Oberzanek favours the post-romantic egalitarian approach and Page celebrates the spiritual nature of sexuality. In Warumuk – in the dark night, Page assigns the roles of sun, moon and stars to the female dancers in a retelling of Aboriginal creation stories from North East Arnhem Land. Here, women are powerful and held in respect. The male and female energies are used in the dance as forces of nature that are expressed through dancers of either sex and come together under the maternal night sky. There are particularly moving moments in the final scene when the men, dressed in long skirts suggestive of animal skin, drift softly across the stage, cherishing the female who represents the morning star.
David Page's score, with its use of solo cello and piano as well as percussion and indigenous sounds and songs, underlines the shifting moods of planets and stars, while Jacob Nash's set design uses Aboriginal motifs and imagery as a focus for the mythical narrative. Stephen Page does not shy away from narrative: storytelling is a vital part of his culture. There are seven interconnected stories in Warumuk, which as a whole translate a powerful indigenous creation myth into the language of dance. It is the spiritual connectedness of these bare-foot dancers that creates a rhythm and harmony that delights and astounds.
As well as members of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, of which Page is Artistic Director, there are several members of The Australian Ballet dancing in Warumuk. This is one of several collaborations between the two companies, but never before has the dancing reached this standard. The precision and athleticism of the Australian Ballet troupe has added a sense of flight into the earthiness of Bangarra. And the fluidity and sensuality of the Aboriginal dancers seems to have rubbed off on the ballet dancers. This cross-fertilisation of styles is shaping the identity of Australian dance and maybe influencing its evolution further afield. The collaboration of these three great choreographers is a fitting celebration of the Australian Ballet's birthday and a milestone in dancing history.
The Australian Ballet
Venue: Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 24 February – 6 March 2012
Duration: 2 hours 30 mins
Tickets: $39 – $170