Dance / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Three New Ballets to Open the Australian Ballet’s 50th Anniversary in Sydney

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Barnumbirr the Morning Star, 1987 natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark 178.0 h x 125.0 w cm Purchased 1987 © Jack Wunuwun. Licensed by Viscopy
Barnumbirr the Morning Star, 1987 natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark 178.0 h x 125.0 w cm Purchased 1987 © Jack Wunuwun. Licensed by Viscopy

Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 10 April, 2012
continues in Sydney until 25 April

The Australian Ballet presents Infinity, a triple bill:

The Narrative of Nothing
Choreographer – Graeme Murphy
Creative associate – Janet Vernon
Music – Brett Dean
Costume design – Jennifer Irwin
Stage and lighting design – Damien Cooper
Sound design – Bob Scott

Lana Jones
Adam Bull
Amy Harris
Andrew Killian
Karen Nanasca
Andrew Wright
Brooke Lockett
Chengwu Guo
Halaina Hills
Jarryd Madden
Ako Kondo
Brett Chynoweth
Jessica Fyfe
Calvin Hannaford
Charles Thompson

There’s Definitely a Prince Involved
Choreographer – Gideon Obarzanek
Music – Stefan Gregory after Piotr Tchaikovsky
Costume design – Alexi Freeman (original costumes from Swan Lake (1977) and Night Shadow (1993) designed by Tom Lingwood for the Australian Ballet)
Stage concept – Benjamin Cisterne and Gideon Obarzanek. Original sets designed for The Australian Ballet by Hugh Colman
Lighting design – Benjamin Cisterne

Madeleine Eastoe
Kevin Jackson
Dana Stephensen
Benjamin Stuart-Carberry
Ingrid Gow
Christopher Rodgers-Wilson
Alice Topp
Heidi Martin
Sarah Black
Robbie Curtis
Kristina Chan
James O’Hara
Benedicte Bemet
Garry Stocks
Kismet Bourne
Joseph Chapman
Jasmin Durham
Rohan Furnell
Eloise Fryer
Timothy Harford
Rina Nemoto
Jack Hersee
Richard House
Valerie Tereshchenko
Brodie James
Sarah Thompson
Luke Marchant
Jade Wood
Mitchell Rayner

Warumuk in the dark night
with Bangarra Dance Theatre
Choreographer – Stephen Page
Music – David Page, orchestrated by Jessica Wells, featuring Dhuwa and Yirritja songs and stories from North East Arnhem Land
vocals by Jamie Wanambi, Banula Marika and Janet Guypunguna Munyarryun
Costume design – Jennifer Irwin
Set design – Jacob Nash
Lighting Design – Padraig O Suilleabhain
Sound design – Bob Scott

Leanne Stojmenov
Matthew Donnelly
Juliet Burnett
Rudy Hawkes
Natalie Fincher
Brett Simon
Vivienne Wong
Jacob Sofer
Dimity Azoury
Cameron Hunter
Amber Scott
Jake Mangakahia
Kismet Bourne
Deborah Brown
Waangenga Blanco
Yolande Brown
Jhuny-Boy Borja
Tara Gower
Travis De Vries
Ella Havalka
Daniel Riley McKinley
Elma Kris
Leonard Mickelo
Tara Robertson
Kaine Sultan-Babij
Jasmin Sheppard
Patrick Thaiday

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Nicolette Fraillon

The Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's The Narrative of Nothing. Photo by Jeff Busby.
The Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's The Narrative of Nothing. Photo by Jeff Busby.

With the Evening Star just about to set, hanging a little above a Harbour Bridge pylon, and, by the second interval, a waning gibbous moon rising through a back-lit bank of cloud, so the Sydney season of the Australian Ballet opens, with three new short ballets. They cover a broad range, like three points of a very large triangle, showing some of the versatility of the company.

The Narrative of Nothing as the name implies is an abstract ballet, mostly. The Australian Ballet along with the BBC and the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, has commissioned from Australian composer Brett Dean “Fire Music“, a new score specially for this ballet, and the music and lighting contribute almost as major a part as the dancing. Wearing white full body tights with severe dark gray and black patterns bursting on parts of them with flecks of somber shades of green and red, costumes which reinforce the tense, highly dynamic ballet, the dancers come on in groups, usually with one or two or three at the fore at any moment, replacing each other for each scene over 10 or 11 scenes. First it is a lone man dancing in a spotlight, a lamp dangling from a rope swinging about him. There are also banks of lights along the sides of the stage — light bulbs set in a grid inside boxes which brighten and dim with the changing moods of the piece and are quite urban in character, like dazzling streetlights or headlights. Despite the soft, extremely low “pedal” tones which open the music, the dancing quickly becomes quite intense. There are interesting dynamic groupings — the dancers run together with their arms on their neighbors shoulders, or come in close together waving their intertwined limbs, like writhing bodies — I couldn’t help at these moments recalling images of the Final Judgement and there is something of a baroque influence on the ballet. The music features fast, semi-atonal motifs in short notes, which repeat sometimes, rarely letting up, often on strident clear strings, with blaring trumpets and trombones, synthesizer organ and bright woodwinds. An odd reflection of the trumpets off the back wall of the theater added, whether intentionally or not, to the discombobulating feeling of the music. The electronic element is engineered with complexity, using spacial effects to add to the sense of constant movement in the music, as there is in the dancing, and add to the greater sensational aspects of the music. There is much layering in the music, but it becomes a bit of a mess in the theater’s notorious acoustic, especially with the electronic element by necessity coming through speakers to the left and right of the orchestra pit. Musically, the two elements aren’t exactly incongruous, no more than intended by the composer, in the context, but don’t seem to combine with the intended equilibrium in the ear. The music goes more or less continuously without obvious breaks or movements, except for a startling electric guitar solo. This in a way makes a welcome change from ballets broken up by applause after each scene; this one runs through continuously. The choreography being very full in itself, dancers rarely stop and show great stamina in moving through grueling long sequences, often varied, at times seeming arbitrary, movements which are sometimes unpredictable and which the dancers do well to link with the continuity and fluency which they managed, though sometimes I got the sense it was all they could do to keep up with the choreography, not having time enough to convey the greater sense of the longer phrase through which they were moving.

There is something mechanistic about the movements in general. There are many movements with an organic quality, some quite moving as gestures, some quite beautiful, though in general and in its general thrust — and it felt like quite a forceful ballet — it is not a beautiful ballet, nor is the music, nor are they meant to be, which is fine as a concept of course. It is very interesting the way Graeme Murphy and Dean have created something at once primitive, in the sense of pure, nascent and fundamental, and modern, in the busy, urban sense. It is mostly abstract, so these are just impressions of the whole piece of theatre, and often the humanity of it is hidden, though there do suddenly enter very familiar movements — a vaguely classical step, a fluted, broken-wristed Murphyesque arabesque, a man hammering his own head as if driving himself into the ground, and other such little witty things. There is a disturbing struggle between a man dancing forcefully and a woman trying to get away, another man at one point picks up his partner by her head. These familiar or concrete gestures tend to jerk one from the abstract world of the dance as it is by sublimating something, as if something very solid suddenly drops down. The piece ends with the dancers in a sort of clock mechanism, the dancers in the back standing on others’ backs who rock back and forth and the lamp re-descends to swing about the “protagonist” in front.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Gideon Obarzanek's "There's Definitely A Prince Involved." Photo by Jeff Busby.
Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Gideon Obarzanek's "There's Definitely A Prince Involved." Photo by Jeff Busby.

Gideon Obarzanek was invited to choreograph the second in the triple bill. He apparently asked friends and colleagues not directly associated with ballet (he has danced in the contemporary dance sphere for some time) about the art form and Swan Lake in particular, taken that as a concept and put their responses directly into his piece There’s Definitely a Prince Involved, as narration, spoken by dancers on stage. He uses costumes and sets from a 1977 production of Swan Lake and other costumes form a ballet called Night Shadows from the 1990’s, and in a similar way, excerpts from Tchaikovksy’s score and Petipa’s and Ivanov’s choreography. While combining narration with ballet seems to me even more problematic than combining it with music (and the last three ballets I’ve seen use it, so I hope it’s not a trend) and at best it is distracting, — is  the choreographer not capable of expressing through the body more, and more deeply, and more sublimely than what is being spoken? — and here the result is depressing and banal. The narration, sometimes over the dancing, sometimes spoken while the dancers wait patiently, is banal and dreary, fluently turning clichés over and over, as the scenes are danced often in a brief, uncaring, offhand, ironic way, or the narration is so over-personal in describing some chilling and repellent episode from from a ‘relationship’ of the modern age. Some of the spiels, labeled “Drones” by Obarzanek are clearly being poked fun at, and are spoken in a sardonic tone, and elicit some inevitable guffaws from one section of the audience. Swan Lake is parodied too — for example the famous cygnet pas de quatre music is repeated three or four times as the narrators try to make sense of the plot and the massed dancers on stage follow only the head movements of the original choreography but nothing else of it. Even as a satire where nothing is holy and all is a valid target (and those usually become very blunt as satires anyway) it is not very edifying and or inspired. It is disappointing because Obarzanek created such a satisfying and human piece in Assembly just a few months ago for the Sydney Festival, but here he seemed to just not have any ideas, like Fellini for , though here coming up with a piece of theater without the redeeming qualities that film has. His own choreography appears in two or three scenes with original music in an empty black stage, but these are partly trivialized by the narration leading up to and following these scenes and let down by the ugly costumes: shaggy white tassels hanging in clumps off white full body tights but with the backside bare and some flesh showing through to give a mangy effect, and the limitations of the guest dancers showed alongside the Australian Ballet cast, especially Madeleine Eastoe who is one of their best principle ballerinas, here dancing beautifully, but her expressiveness only exploited to set off the clunky and frigid satire. It is a missed opportunity given her and the whole company’s resources and abilities that this was the result. It happens though in theater and one bad apple doesn’t ruin the evening.

Warumuk is Stephen Page’s offering to the triple bill and is a new creation with new music composed by his brother David Page; it is also one of the works the Australian Ballet will take to New York on tour in June. The brothers are respectively artistic director of and composer for the Bangarra Dance Theatre whose dancers here also collaborate on stage with the Australian Ballet. Aboriginal myths not only have an affinity with dance, they are meant to be a part of the religions, forming ceremonies with music, singing, dancing and art and their meaning is inextricable from these non verbal arts. When the myths are written out prosaically, told as stories in books it is obvious they lose a great deal, sounding pat and losing their range of meaning, reflecting more of the writer’s mind  than their mystical necessity. Direct transcriptions of actual tellings by an elder are better, conveying some of the rhythm through repetition and other techniques but still of course lose something in the translation. As pure dance and music, especially so well danced and played, we see something of the hidden side to the myths, more of the mysticism, as one may get from a painting, but here the theater gives a different angle from the museum.

Warumuk does have an implied story, that of the several myths and characters which take part, and certainly it is well bound with a certain arc, not exactly a narrative in the conventional sense, but in a way nothing ‘happens’ in it, action blends completely into the movement and expression of the dancers’ bodies, as the human forms are inseparable from the spirits, animals or earth. Thankfully, there has been no attempt to squeeze a glib paraphrase of the myths’ stories into the playbill. It takes us, or rather allows us to witness a kind of night sea journey, beginning with the setting of the Evening Star, Djurrpun (on stage now) just after dusk, a single woman in white dances lightly with men (nine, from memory) wearing ochre body paint, she climbs their backs and is assisted in their lifts as if descending to interact with earth. The sets are simple and effective, anything more or less would have ruined it: white dot paintings very bright on the black back wall capture the Evening Star’s bright smudgy quality and its whiteness which picks up the color of the atmosphere slightly. The choreography suits the talents and style of the Australian Ballet very well, this shows in the concentrated and understanding care the dancers put into it, their individual timing and sense of much more beyond the sequence of steps. The two companies combined seamlessly partly because their styles seem compatible, both with the grace and natural assurance of the Australian nature, and because the choreography is suited to the individual dancers, and those dancers suited to the flavor of their particular scene. So the piece unfolded naturally, without force, like a natural phenomenon but with a depth of thought, intent and will behind it.

The next scene is Julpan: Leanne Stojmenov dances a Forbidden Fish amongst three men wearing hooked hats which make inventive costumes which complement the choreography. Stojmenov’s graceful movement is quick enough to be animal-like but she holds certain  poses with well judged timing, poses which are crane-like with their angular grace, so perhaps she is as much fisher as fish. The next scene, Milky Way Badurru has the glowing stream of stars in dots across the back wall and the dancing becomes a collective corps de ballet sequence. There is nothing clichéd or predictable: the piece has a great sense of wonder and is very absorbing. The dancing is very subtle and almost understated, concise with depth of meaning and feeling, and very moving in itself. The music combines the orchestra and recorded singing of Yolngu songs of northeast Arnhem land. The simple emotional harmonies of the instrumental music tend to yield to the dancing, the music has been orchestrated for these performances, and at times the strings put a toe over into the realm of cinematic sentimentality, the massed strings of the Romantic-style orchestra sometimes feel incongruous with the singing and hold it back, though all in all the orchestra is nimble enough, thanks to Nicollette Fraillon’s skills, to complement the singing.

The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre as The Full Moon and Tides in Stephen Page's Warumuk - in the dark night. Photo by Jeff Busby.
The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre as The Full Moon and Tides in Stephen Page's Warumuk - in the dark night. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Full Moon Ngalindi sees two Bangarra dancers Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco with attendants in a more ceremonious dance under a large wrinkled disk of metal. Next is Eclipse Gungama, a pas de deux, Ella Havelka dances the Sun in a white flowing dress with yellow, red and black stripes which fade into each other with Jake Mangakahia (from the Australian Ballet) as the Moon. It is romantic and expressive, one of those pas de deux with very close sympathetic partnering without physical contact, eventually they do come together, dancing with intensity but also tenderness and serenity. The next scene, Seven Sisters (corresponding to the Pleiades) are also painted in star form against a field of stars on the back wall. The seven women, four from the Australian Ballet and three from Bangarra, dance with enormous fluidity and grace. The entire piece was very fluid, seeming to move constantly with  dramatic pacing without the least bit of rushing, but reaches a graceful climax here. The vivid but subtle coloring of their dresses, also very light and floating brings just the right amount of color to the scene and now individual, now coordinated movement of the Sisters.

Finally the Morning Star Barnumbirr, danced by Deborah Brown of Bangarra, and a corps de ballet of Australian Ballet and Bangarra  dancers. She sits in a loop of white feathery rope which drops from the rafters, recalling the feathered stocks of the yam plant in Wunuwun’s painting (though note Wunuwun is a Yolngu of Central Arnhem Land), or the rope which the spirits of the dead use, according to Dhuwa mysticism, to retrieve the Morning Star after the Sun rises. She dances in and out of the loop and in and out of the group of other dancers who are men wearing ghostly white painted faces and white cascading skirts embedded with flour which makes clouds as it sheds off in their larger movements, these costumes and the rope and the men’s faces stand out brightly, and then the clouds start to make the background misty, which was before inky vast blackness, becomes tangible. As the atmosphere thickens dawn-like, she is startled as her rope tumbles to the ground beside her, as if the Sun’s rays are catching up to her again. And so the ballet ends very gently.

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