Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed April 29
Kunstkamer is a large-scale work with over 40 dancers that received its world premiere in October, 2019, as a celebration of Netherland Dance Theatre’s 60th anniversary. A planned tour in 2020 by NDT was cancelled due to the onset of coronavirus so this is, in fact, not just the first time Kunstkamer has been performed in Australia and the first time it has been performed by a company other than NDT, but only the 13th time it has been performed anywhere – full stop. (NDT’s premiere season being a run of 12 performances.)
And what a richly varied, intriguing and absorbing work the Australian Ballet has brought to the stage. The title itself refers to the cabinets of curiosities – those private collections of rare and wonderful specimens that emerged across Europe in the 16th century and would eventually form the basis of newly established museums. This may seem an oddly specific theme to make a dance work about, but it serves only as a launchpad to celebrate the diversity of living organisms and the forces that bind them. This in turn becomes a celebration of the unique qualities of the individual dancers themselves; yet it also brings them together in large ensemble sections. This togetherness is distinctly different from the well-rehearsed symmetry of a corps de ballet in a traditional three act ballet and more comparable to the way a large flock of birds might loosely maintain formation as they make a sharp turn in the air, or the way a drop of water falling into a larger body of still water creates a circular ricochet or wave that moves outwards and away from the point of impact. It is breathtaking to watch.
I was particularly taken with the austere neoclassical architecture of the dark set that enclosed the stage and by the gorgeous lighting. The set design was by choreographers Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot, while the original lighting design was attributed to Tom Bevoort, Udo Haberland and Tom Visser. The wings and the back of the stage were completely hidden from view by a three-sided architectural façade which featured a small central triangular pediment framed by classical columns and two levels of archways from which dancers could enter and exit. The space was sometimes altered by the two side pieces folding inwards to create sharper corners with deep shadows and to focus our attention downstage.
Despite being comprised of 18 different sections choreographed by four different choreographers, and accompanied by music from composers and musicians as diverse as Beethoven, Arvo Part and Janis Joplin, Kunstkamer feels very much like one unified work. Certainly, the bulk of the work was choreographed by longtime collaborators Lightfoot and Leon, but it is unimaginable without the sections choreographed by Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite. The choreography itself is highly varied and can be physically intense, yet springs from a deeply internal, psychological base. I was vaguely reminded of the Kylian ballets (including Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land, Stepping Stones, Petite Mort and Bella Figura) which were a regular feature of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire in decades past.
Each of Kunstkamer’s two acts is approximately one hour long, and although this is primarily a dance work there are elements of film projection, spoken word and song throughout, making it rather different to most Australian Ballet repertoire. The opening night cast rose to the challenge, and although Artistic Director (and ballet superstar) David Hallberg joined the dancers onstage he did not dominate the work or draw attention away from the rest of the cast. From his opening slide into an exquisitely controlled split – “Ouch” was the first word out of his mouth – the quirky, unexpected nature of this work was made apparent. Seven dancers were listed as soloists on the cast sheet, including four principal dancers, one coryphee, one corps de ballet dancer and Hallberg himself, but plenty of other dancers were given places to shine. The high level of commitment and focus on stage was palpable, meaning that if those in the audience (even the dance critics!) didn’t understand why something was happening or what it specifically meant, we were still absorbed and intrigued by the dancers’ commitment to whatever was happening in that moment.
Interestingly the ensemble sections, even the smaller ones, were not split rigidly into dances for men or women only – and given the mostly unisex costumes in black and neutral shades it wasn’t always easy to identify individual dancers onstage so I will refrain from singling out any individuals for particular praise on this occasion, while applauding the achievement of the whole cast in bringing this work to life as vividly as they did.
– GERALDINE HIGGINSON
All photos by Daniel Boud.