Straight into the job and The Australian Ballet’s new artistic director, David Hallberg, is already shaking things up by programming Kunstkamer, an epic contemporary dance work originally made for Nederlands Dans Theater’s (NDT) recent 60th anniversary.

The Australian Ballet is no stranger to modern works – their repertoire is full of neo-classical ballet and post-modern hits from the likes of Wayne McGregor and William Forsythe. But Kunstkamer is a different kettle of fish entirely. Firstly, it’s a dense, full-length (two acts, two hours) production. Secondly, its physical vocabulary is unlike anything the company has done before.

Visuals skew mostly black, with white and beige contrasts and gold accents. The set (by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot) comprises black walls that slide from angled partitions into a large-scale, three-sided room with doors and windows from which dancers throw themselves into full-throttle action or quietly emerge and then organically accumulate themselves into solos and  duets.

Choreographed by four creatives (Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke ) – all of whom have extensive history with NDT – Kunstkamer runs the gamut of intimacy to mass frenzy with unrelenting commitment. While there are textural and tonal differences between the various contributions, as a whole, Kunstkamer is an extremely cohesive work.

The choreographic styles range from idiosyncratic, twitchy solos and duets to sweeping, 40-plus dancer canons that engulf the stage with undulating, kinetic energy. The movement construction – the spacing, the counterpoints, the transitions from small groups to larger ones – constantly surprises and invention abounds. Music is equally varied, with Beethoven and Britten alongside Janis Joplin and Jody Talbot in a mix of classical and modern that, like the movement, somehow gels together.

Kunstkamer translates as “room full of art” and is inspired by Albertus Seba’s book Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. The art of science and the science in art, the natural world in all its wonders – these concepts provide jumping off points. But ultimately, Kunstkamer’s abstraction allows for any interpretation or just plain wonderment at the continuous choreographic invention and surprises that abound.

Compared to traditional ballet, casting is more democratic as dancers in all ranks, from corps de ballet to principals, inhabit all manner of roles. Other than in a handful of stand-out solos, it's difficult to discern individuals. A unity of execution and technical skill across the entire group proves that talent lies everywhere in the company.

Costuming (by Joke Visser and Hermien Hollander) is gender neutral – mostly black pants and shorts ensembles, sometimes accessorized with swishing beige overcoats or the dash of a bright red tutu. This also adds to the democracy.

Hallberg, himself returns to stage, playing the spirit/keeper of the Kunstkamer, a theatrical role for an experienced dancer – one who is in later stage of their dancing career. With hints of classical ballet (dropping to the splits and proclaiming “ouch”, or slowly carving out codified ballet arm and leg lines), the character is a guide of sorts, interjecting himself between scenes, observing through doorways, commentating both physically and verbally with a sly sense of humour. (For the Melbourne season, Hallberg alternates this role with Jorge Nozal who played the character in the NDT season and is a guest artist here in Australia). With his exquisite feet, supple physique and strong presence, Hallberg still has the ballet chops as well as a flair for the theatrical and vocal side of the role.

Dense and ever-changing, Kunstkamer is a marathon, not a sprint, and probably best appreciated by letting the various energetic states and metaphorical characters wash over, rather than try to understand what is going on. Its unrelenting and abstracted nature will polarize audiences, but the risk of setting such an ambitious and challenging work on an Australian company has already paid off in a successful Sydney season. The Melbourne run is set to be the same.

The entire ensemble has stepped well outside of their comfort zone and taken on new movement vocabularies with open-mindedness and aplomb. Maybe it’s the physical challenges of the work or maybe it’s the renewal of the company by a passionate and intimately involved new artistic director.

Whatever the reason, The Australian Ballet is on fire. Kunstkamer heralds a bright and fortuitous start to a new chapter in the company's continuing evolution.

Event details

The Australian Ballet presents

Choreography Paul Lightfoot, Sol León, Crystal Pite, Marco Goecke

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 4 – 11 June 2022

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