• Photo: Ron Fung Photography
    Photo: Ron Fung Photography
  • Photo: Ron Fung Photography
    Photo: Ron Fung Photography
  • Photo: Ron Fung Photography
    Photo: Ron Fung Photography

Melbourne Ballet Company: Empyrean

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“Empyrean”, Melbourne Ballet Company -
Alex Theatre, St Kilda, June 17 -

“Empyrean” is part II of Melbourne Ballet Company’s (MBC) ambitious triptych programme for 2016, entitled “Intention and Desire” and inspired by Picasso’s “Guernica”. Following on from the confronting illusions of “The Veil of Maya”,  triple bill “Empyrean” is about a glimpse of hope, as symbolised by the lamp held by the woman in Picasso’s painting, a glimpse of heaven, or at least of purity and of the highest realm before heaven itself.

Throughout the nine years of its existence, MBC, under the directorship of Simon Hoy, has not shirked from its original mandate of presenting original and challenging programmes of contemporary ballet with high intellectual and artistic pretensions. It is a credit to the company, the director and its backers that they have not sold out on any level.

“Empyrean” was no exception to the quest for both innovation and accessibility. It featured three new works by three choreographers: Rani Luther, who has danced with Netherlands Dance Theatre, the Australian Ballet and MBC amongst others, Tim Harbour, now resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, and Simon Hoy, who has created much of the company’s rich repertoire.

The three works are quite different in intention and concept. Rani Luther’s “Illuminate” takes the audience on a journey through states of love and transcendence, illuminated by the image of the lamp of hope in Guernica. In “Zealots” Tim Harbour explores a choreographic concept of no partnering or touching between the dancers while maintaining a sense of togetherness. Simon Hoy’s “Lucidity” is inspired by philosophical concepts of clarity and rationality. All the pieces were engaging and given totally committed performances by the company, making for a rewarding evening. The policy of giving different Australian choreographers a chance to present their work with dancers of such high calibre has paid off huge dividends to the company, which now finds itself close to the forefront of contemporary classical dance in Australia.

“Zealots” by Harbour is excellently crafted with the stunning final tableau a highlight of the piece. Abstract and modern, it features synchronized fast movements well suited to the electronic music and bleeps of John Adams’s score. The dancers spend much of their time staring directly front with wide-open eyes, an apt physical metaphor for their zealotry and fanatical obsession with perfecting their craft. The piece is bathed in yellow, the dancers all clad in yellow leotards, and the colour itself gives an extra cerebral edge to the movements. As one would expect from Harbour the choreography is accomplished and complex, and sustains interest throughout the length of the piece.

Hoy’s “Lucidity” begins strikingly in silence with a male solo set against shifting projections of light on the screen, a backdrop that returns throughout the piece. Sometimes the movement blends into it so that the projections are more the foreground than the dance itself, at other times the dance is allowed to be the centre of attention. The choreography is dense, as is characteristic of Hoy’s work, phrases running into each other at times like the unpunctuated stream of thought sentences of James Joyce, while the dancers revel in the fluidity and speed of the movements, combining full body flexibility with short sharp bursts of energy exploding through limbs. Highlights include a solo and duet featuring Jo Lee in a contemporary style incorporating floorwork and sinuous partnering, and a male duet that begins with the two men walking backwards to meet each other in the centre.

Kristy Lee Denovan, principal dancer of the company and central in “Lucidity”, was also the central character of Luther’s “Illuminate” in which her great natural dance abilities, line and incredible lightness were all put to good use. This piece leaves one wanting to see more of Luther’s work. Intensely musical and using a stunning vocabulary of balletic lifts that seem to yearn towards the Empyrean, “Illuminate” takes the viewer on a journey of emotion, meaning and transcendence. While Rani Luther’s experience with NDT has undoubtedly fed into her movement vocabulary this is in no way to detract from the very real accomplishment of this piece and its overwhelmingly luminous quality. The men are dressed in black, the women on pointe and in red, always a striking colour combination, enhanced by the wash of red light which bathes the start of the second movement. The choreography is fluid, expressive and modern at the same time, the floating suspension of the lifts a particular feature. A highlight is the female trio in shadowy half lighting, complemented by the male trio later on. Ensembles, duets and solos blend into a harmonious whole which ends, appropriately, with the dancers reaching towards the light.

The current group of dancers is evenly matched with experience and skill in both classical and contemporary choreography. The Alex Theatre is relatively small with a smallish stage and presenting ballet at such close quarters can be unforgiving but all of the dancers acquitted themselves superbly with secure execution and expressive performances.

Irina Kuzminsky

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