A colourful and surprisingly humorous paean to the Olympic Games. A mesmerising dance inspired by the work of a French philosopher. A moody evocation of urban loneliness and the impact of tragedy. The three pieces The Australian Ballet has launched its 2017 season with couldn’t be more different. Yet each has in common intricacy, beauty and a startling use of ballet to express modern concerns.
The headline piece, Faster, was created in the lead-up to the 2012 London games. Choreographer David Bintley originally wanted to call it “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, like the Olympic motto, with one movement for each of the three elements, but that idea was nixed by the Olympic Committee’s copyright lawyers. No matter, the piece is a triumph.
To a pacy soundtrack, with undertones of fanfare, dancers homage the physical movement styles of various athletic disciplines, from gymnastics and high diving, to fencing and basketball. The premise gives considerable scope for inventiveness, both in the costumes, which playfully hit at athletic uniforms, and the representations of sporting moments, especially with the clever use of aerials.
A ballet about the Olympics could of course have been horribly self-serious but Bintley’s piece keeps the tone light. There is ample visual humour at play, whether that’s in the depiction of the more idiosyncratic sports such as competitive walking or synchronised swimming, or the balletic mimicry of actions like panting for breath or wiping a sweaty brow. The audience buzz with delight throughout it. With its centrepiece a soulful pas de deux expressing an athlete’s struggle against their personal limits, and its finale an exhilirating staging of a running race, Faster is an absolute thrill.
This is followed by the mesmerising Squander and Glory, by Australian Ballet resident choreographer Tim Harbour. Set to the whirling strings of the first movement of Michael Gordon‘s Weather, it is a piece in constant flow. A group of dancers who at first appear to pulse in unison split into a complexity of separate dances, which in turn morph seamlessly into new physical arrangements. There is never a moment where one movement phrase ends and another begins, the whole thing is like the breathing of an organism. A vast mirror behind the dancers allows them to be seen from all sides at once and it makes for a breathtaking display of their grace and precision.
The piece draws its inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source: an essay by French philosopher Georges Batailles. Batailles analyses social behaviour in terms of energetic build up and release. The fluid motion of Squander and Glory, the way it alternately builds and dissolves complexity, expresses this concept artfully, though you certainly don’t need to appreciate the sociopolitical subtext to be wowed by this phenomenally beautiful work.
The final piece, Infra, takes things to a darker space. British choreographer Wayne McGregor is known for choreographing film clips for the likes of Radiohead and here he has created a haunting depiction of urban isolation. To a moody Max Richter soundtrack which incorporates the sound of untuned radios, couples dance in squares of light surrounded by darkness, while above them faceless animated figures pass on an LED screen. There is seldom more than one pair of dancers on stage at any one time. As one pair enters, another leaves, or if they share the stage it is each in stark separation. The sense of being alone in a crowd is elegantly realised and after brief moments of unity, whether through celebration or tragedy, the return to isolation is even more poignant.
Infra’s depiction of tragedy and its aftermath – inspired by the London bombings of 2005 – is searingly powerful and by the end the audience have come a long way from the bright spectacle of Faster. This trio of dances evokes every emotion from exultation to horror and does so with stunning grace and artistry. It is hard to imagine a more complete night of entertainment; if there were medals for art, this would get the gold.
The Australian Ballet presents
Venue: Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dates: 17 – 27 Mar 2017