His Majesty’s Theatre
Reviewed: September 8
echoes of VAN GOGH is an ambitious new full-length contemporary ballet created for West Australian Ballet by Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma. The outstanding world premiere is a celebration of Vincent van Gogh’s body of work, interwoven with a narrative of his short yet prolific life as one of history’s most influential artists.
The creative team’s commitment to presenting his original artwork is the key to this ballet’s success; Vincent’s post-impressionist paintings are at the core of this sensory-rich production. Kuindersma, a Young Creative Associate with Dutch National Opera & Ballet who previously choreographed for West Australian Ballet’s 2020 Perth Festival season of Ballet at the Quarry, takes direct inspiration from Vincent’s work, explaining in the program notes that “there is so much emotion, energy and movement inside the paintings, they are already like dance to me, expressing his inner life in a very immediate way”. Indeed, Kuindersma’s choreography seems to transcribe Vincent’s distinct textural work into smooth turns and twirls, the rolling hills of his landscapes into undulating limbs and torsos, and the bright colours of his sunny home in the south of France into bursts of jumps.
Dramaturge Janine Brogt has structured the two-act ballet in chronological order of Vincent’s most famous paintings, with further biographical information provided in projected excerpts of letters that Vincent (performed on opening night by Ludovico Di Ubaldo) exchanged with his loving brother and financial sponsor Theo (Juan Carlos Osma). The whole ballet spans a decade, from the beginnings of Vincent’s painting career at age 27, through his fraught relationships with Sien (Polly Hilton) and Kee (Kiki Saito), his failed artistic collaborations with Gauguin (Oscar Valdés), and the unwavering support of his brother Theo and sister-in-law Jo (Alexa Tuzil) that continued beyond his tragic death.
The audience is treated to a visual feast from start to finish, thanks to designer Tatyana Van Walsum, who has, in a unique way, collaborated with Vincent’s paintings to create the set, video and costume design. A curved backdrop creates a three dimensional effect as projected videos of Vincent’s paintings are revealed to us through a magnified lens that shows every brushstroke in mesmerising detail. Through the many slits in the backdrop, dancers disappear into and emerge from the paintings, creating surreal magic for the eyes. The perfect colour matching of the costumes with their corresponding paintings is equally striking, from the warm yellow of Sunflowers to the cobalt blue of The Starry Night.
Kuindersma’s expressive choreography is accompanied by an original score composed by Anthony Fiumara, played beautifully on opening night by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Jessica Gethin. The music is dynamic, bold and emotive, in synchrony with the motion of Vincent’s brushstrokes.
In a production that otherwise treated the issue of mental illness with respect and sensitivity, the opening scene of Act 2 was disappointing to watch as the curtain rose on dancers clad in straitjackets with bandages around their heads (referencing Vincent’s self-injury to his ear), stumbling around the stage in a caricature of insanity that was quite out of place. This dehumanising scene disrupted the premise of the entire work, which otherwise showed that the power of Vincent’s art was in its ability to intuitively communicate his emotional turmoil through imagery and symbolism.
Far more poignant and effective representations of the complexity of psychological distress were shown in other moments; the ensemble dances of the sunflowers and the crows abstracting the highs and lows of unstable mood, the heart-wrenching duets between brothers Theo and Vincent, and a stark lighting state (by Jon Buswell) leaving Vincent alone on the floor illuminated in ghostly blue.
echoes of VAN GOGH is not to be missed, bringing to life an incredible artist’s most iconic paintings through a fluently arranged symbiosis of movement, visual art, music and design.
– ISABELLE LECLEZIO
'Echoes of VAN GOGH' Continues until September 23.