Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The Australian Ballet’s "Identity" program is a thoughtful, nostalgic and visually striking program of two new works that explore themes of identity from different angles and complement each other well. It was pleasing to see the recently departed Music Director and conductor Nicolette Fraillon back to conduct both works, and she also gave a sincere Acknowledgement of Country from the orchestra pit just before the curtain rose.
The program begins with Daniel Riley’s THE HUM – a collaboration between Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) and the Australian Ballet (AB). It was danced by a cast of 11 dancers from the AB and six from ADT, but the way they shared the space and danced alongside each other minimised their stylistic and technical differences. From the beginning of the very first section the idea of an invisible energy or connection was clearly established: dancer Sebastian Geiling initiated the movement, appearing to send ripples and reverberations throughout his fellow cast members without actually touching them.
Matthew Adey’s set and lighting design managed to evoke the timelessness of the Australian landscape in a strikingly contemporary way. I particularly appreciated the way he made the set look dark but kept the dancers beautifully lit and clearly visible for virtually the whole piece. As the lights shifted gradually from white to yellow, orange and red, I saw the passing of time in nature - as day turns into night, as well as the iconic earthy red shades of Australia’s Red Centre. This desert landscape was also depicted by set pieces that looked like low-lying rocky outcrops which were moved around the stage at various points during the work.
Composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s musical score for THE HUM had a shimmering mystical quality without any obvious rhythm at first, but when one suddenly appeared - made by what sounded like wooden clapsticks - the effect was quite transformative. Annette Sax’s costume designs looked loose and easy to move in while I was left wondering if the patterns on the fabric represented patterns found in nature or were purely abstract in origin.
It seems almost unfair to single out individual dancers when the whole cast appeared to be so attuned to each other, but on the other hand - I am a critic. On this showing Karra Nam, Lilla Harvey, Evie Ferris, Zachary Lopez, Callum Linnane and Sebastian Geilings all stood out
The evening closed with Alice Topp’s Paragon, and what a trip down memory lane this is. It’s a testament to the trust and confidence Topp engenders in her peers (no dictatorial choreographer here!) that 13 former stars of the AB came out of retirement to appear in this work. The end result is a work that scores highly on sentiment and nostalgia, but ultimately emphasises the AB’s continuance now and into the future. Over the course of an hour there are at least five main duets interspersed with a variety of ensemble sections that include choreographic references to and brief glimpses of Australian Ballet productions including Stanton Welch’s Divergence and Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.
In one section titled ‘Glow’ Lucinda Dunn, Madeleine Eastoe, Sarah Peace, Kirsty Martin, Jessica Thompson and Rachel Rawlins danced alongside current artists of the AB in identical gold strapless dresses – reminiscent of Cinderella’s ballgown in Alexei Ratmansky’s production of Cinderella. As they swirled around the stage it was amazing how the faces of dancers past and present seemed to flicker past like still images on a roll of old-fashioned film until it was no longer a simple matter of identifying who was who. With expressive arm movements and carefully turned wrists, Topp’s choreography in this section emphasised the romantic expressiveness so frequently associated with ballet.
Adam Bull (who will give his final performance with the company in the Melbourne season of "Identity") danced two of the main duets, the first with Fiona Tonkin and the second with Amber Scott. In the first duet Adam’s tall physique contrasted touchingly with Fiona Tonkin’s small stature, yet it was her that seemed to be leading him in a highly expressive piece about moving on and letting go - but always remembering. In the second duet Bull and Scott moved with a legato ease that was less overtly emotional but spoke volumes through line and shape. From memory, these two principal artists danced the leading roles in Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake back in 2012, and this duet appeared to briefly reference their partnership in this ballet but did so in quite a subtle way.
Following this duet in a section called "Lake", Kirsty Martin and Steven Heathcote performed a duet supported by an ensemble of current AB artists that had echoes of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Filtered through Topp’s own choreographic voice it looked fresh and original, and it’s exciting to think what Topp might create one day with the opportunity to choreograph her own production of an iconic story ballet from start to finish.
Composer Christopher Gordon’s musical score for Paragon successfully expressed a range of moods for each contrasting section of the work, while Jon Buswell’s moveable set design provided a blank canvas for digital projections of images from the AB’s past. The piece de resistance came in the final section when these tall rectangular set pieces turned around to form an integrated view of the interior of the AB’s home studios in Melbourne, complete with actual barre. Aleisa Jelbart’s costume designs included some references to costumes from other productions but also used colour and style more broadly to differentiate between present and past – the traditional and the new. For just as the resolution and use of colour in photography can give a rough indication as to the date of a given photograph, so can the style and colour of a costume connect more directly to a particular era or ballet production.
Despite their different approaches to this program’s theme of "Identity", both works emphasised a view which focussed more on the collective strands that connect us than the unique differences that comprise our individual identities. A fitting tribute to the 60th anniversary of a company and collective endeavour like the Australian Ballet.
- GERALDINE HIGGINSON
'Identity' continues till May 20, then moves to Arts Centre Melbourne from June 16 to 24.