Resident Australian Ballet choreographer Stephen Baynes just in the act of choosing Fauré’s Requiem mass for a new ballet for the (Australian) Federation Centenary in 2001 clearly stated his concept. He bravely steered to a huge and personal topic in creating a ballet around death with that intimate choral music, and his keen understanding of the music and inventive choreography insure that neither the dancing nor the musical elements step on the other’s toes, as it were. On the contrary the close marriage of choreography and music, though of course not written with the slightest intention for the ballet, sets it as an excellent example of ‘old’ music though already near perfect, benefiting from the added dancing, the choreography finding new depths, no deeper or shallower than the music’s alone, but different depths found only in theatrical arts. Indeed, Stephen Baynes’ ballet introduced me to new approaches to Fauré’s music. Beyond Bach, the other ballet in this all-Baynes double bill showing only in Melbourne, is powerful enough to stand alongside Requiem with neither overshadowing the other. It is almost abstract and shows a deep love for history and J. S. Bach.
The Australian Ballet has of course a long history of commissioning new works, often from Australian choreographers. For the last several years, the Company has encouraged this activity under the ‘Bodytorque’ moniker — five dancers from the company with an interest in choreography are given the opportunity to create a short (15-20 minute) ballet with dancers from the company, which they produce for the general public in a smaller theatre (smaller than the opera house, anyway) — a safe enough environment for experimentation. We balletomanes get the opportunity to see fresh creativity and serious, experimental modern ballet choreography and dancing, as well as what the future holds for the larger national company. This year’s program is certainly varied in inspiration and execution even though, or perhaps because the scale of the productions is small. Some have plots and some have concepts, more like ‘interpretive dance,’ if I can use that term without a negative connotation.
Australia and Britain have particularly close artistic ties, cooperatively sharing artists, as is well documented in the British Liaisons program, along with fascinating pictures. For example, the Irish Briton Ninette de Valois, who helped found the Royal Ballet, sent expertise to many countries in the form of dancers and teachers from her company, Peggy van Praagh in Australia’s case, and she also traveled much herself, for example to Turkey and the Yugoslav nations to help set up their national ballet companies. De Valois also gave Robert Helpmann opportunities to use his acting and dancing talent after he came to England from Australia as a young man. Not mentioned in the program, de Valois in 1928 commissioned a score from the avant garde Australian composer Elsie Hamilton for her ballet The Scorpions of Ysit, though the original failed at the time, it would be interesting to restore it. A good 21st Century example is Peter Wright and John MacFarlane’s (an Englishman and Scot respectively) Nutcracker, which is also now in the Australian Ballet’s repetoire. In any case, the three ballets in this program, all from British choreographers, give a much more articulate description of modern artistic collaboration with Britain and show off its diversity. In addition, this program offers an opportunity to hear well played 20th century music that is not often heard.
When Stanton Welch adapted Puccini’s opera to the ballet 16 years ago it was his first full length work. He is now head of the Houston Ballet, and meanwhile Butterfly has played around the globe and of course has stuck in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. The ballet is neoclassical, or more accurately neo-romantic: it uses the classical ballet forms and also visions and fantastic ethereal imagery, at times within worldly and concrete settings, something ballet in particular does so well, and really is its major strength as an art form, contributing to its appealing free and unique method of story-telling. It doesn’t really make sense to compare ballet to opera, I think Madame Butterfly shows why this comparison is false as it is very different from the opera, but it does seem to gain something in being a ballet — it at least becomes more refined and concentrated and, for me, Mr Welch’s lyrical flowing dances add a je ne sais quoi missing from the music, but moreover it opens up possibilities in the depths of the very difficult characters.
Contemporary art has been around long enough now to be no longer necessarily contemporary with the present day and likewise Avant-Garde seems sometimes more a style than an attitude or movement. Contemporary dance, as free and expressive as it generally is, sometimes feels held back by its stock of conventional movements and gestures. These movements are becoming less and less abstract even if they can be expressive and exhilarating and every good choreographer has their own touch with them. Of course classical ballet has its own stock of traditional steps, but these are meant to blend together smoothly; in a way the ultimate aim of the choreographer and dancer is to meld these individual steps together into the transitionary movements to become a single fluid movement and an expression of a whole more than the sum of its steps. The audience forgets to see or analyze the steps as separate.
Why do we go to the theater? To learn? To be inspired? To infuse our eyes and our minds with culture and history? Yes. Yes. And yes. Nevertheless, deep down, beyond the pretension, the academia, and the commentary, what is at the essence of why we attend a performance? To escape. To have, for an hour or two, the divine pleasure of slipping into another world, another life—one where your problems, your hopes, your daily duties are null and void, and for one small moment, it is acceptable, and expected, to abdicate your own life for the sake of immersing yourself in someone else’s. When have we needed an escape—a fantasy—more than now?
Supermodels gone Wilde. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much that would attract a choreographer in The Picture…
Jacob’s Pillow may have evolved beyond biblical allusions to the Book of Genesis, but the spirit of its namesake is exquisitely infused into the fabric of the choreographic creations that have swept across the Pillow’s three stages, carving a legacy that is nothing short of divine. Opening with Garth Fagan’s theatric masterpiece Griot New York and concluding with the wit and charisma of Larry Keigwin’s Keigwin + Company, the 2008 Festival season, I have no doubt, will be no exception.