20:21: Shot out of the canon and onto the stage

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill begins and ends with jogging.

The curtain opens to reveal a diagonal of dancers in belted white leotards who soon break away to swing their ponytails as they jog through Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.

And in the last of the three ballets, almost everyone jogs in their pyjama pants and Revlon red lipstick skirts and pants in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, although, in Tharpian style, they tend to jog backwards rather than forwards.

The program, titled 20:21, is all about athleticism, propulsion and dynamic movement as well as a statement of how and why ballet is not always romantic or delicate and hiding the effort, but sometimes not afraid to show the dancers’ effort and athleticism and reveal their extraordinary stamina.

In this triple bill, all the dancers seem to be ‚Äúshot out of a canon‚ÄĚ in the words of Sterling Hyltin, an American ballerina who once explained how she felt while dancing the Balanchine ballet.

The Australian Ballet’s Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian were the epitome of stamina in 20:21 as they danced in all three works, Symphony in Three Movements, Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, and In the Upper Room.

The umbrella title refers to the centuries in which the ballets were choreographed, last century [Balanchine and Tharp] and this century, in fact this year [Harbour].

If I had to summarise Symphony in Three Movements in three words it would be ‚Äėgeometry in motion‚Äô. Choreographed in 1972 and danced to Stravinsky‚Äôs score written in the 1940s, the ballet‚Äôs geometric choreography begins with the corps de ballet women, followed by a smaller ensemble dressed in Balanchine’s trademark costumes, black leotards for the women, white T shirts and black tights for the men, and three principal women in pink leotards of different shades – coral, pastel pink and hot pink.

Staged by the Australian Ballet’s ballet mistress and Balanchine repetiteur, Eve Lawson, the company was well rehearsed as they navigated the patterns, lines, directions and interactions such as the highlight for me, when one of the principal women completes a circle of pose turns as she weaves through an ever-moving, jogging corps.

Balanchine’s many dance references incorporate Asian poses, flexed wrists and feet, hand gestures that slice slice through the air, showbiz frolics and jazzy dancing, including showgirl poses.

From start to finish the dancers‚Äô energy is propelled by Stravinsky‚Äôs three movements until the final moments when the men’s double tours are followed by their descent to the floor in a push up position while the women hold their arms aloft or to the side as if they are sending joyous semaphore messages.

The three principal couples, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian and Amber Scott with Rudy Hawkes seemed to glow from within.

The bright light and smiling faces of Symphony in Three Movements was followed by the darkness and intense faces of the cast of 12 in Filigree and Shadow

For a few moments, Harbour’s new work appeared to be a different company, Sydney Dance Company, in a different venue, dancing a work by one of the SDC’s guest choreographers, complete with the back/grey costumes, solemn faces, lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, [the lighting designer for five SDC works], and a commissioned electronic score by 48nord [Ulrich Muller and Siegfried Rossert], the favourite composers of the choreographer, Jacopo Godani.

In his Raw Models, choreographed for SDC in 2011, the cast wore black and danced to a score by 48nord.

But déjà vu dissolved relatively quickly. Harbour’s choreography for Filigree is nothing like Raw Models, the latter replete with head rolls, rotating shoulders, cluster formations and interweaving bodies.

Even when Harbour’s dancers stand in off-balance poses that suggest they might soon fall to the side, the clean lines of ballet are evident.

Harbour has said that his motive for this, his most impressive work so far, was ‚Äúa catharsis for aggression‚ÄĚ and his intention is very clear and powerfully interpreted, particularly in a trio for Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli.

We all know the feeling of anger that rises inside us like a hurricane but is usually kept inside for safety’s sake, ours, and everyone else’s. These men, and the whole cast, let the hurricane out and the end result is kapow!

Harbour asked the architect and designer, Kelvin Ho, to design his set, a wrap-around circle within the stage. [Ho and Harbour speak about the construction and inspiration for the set in the video below].

The circular structure is both an entrance and exit point and a wall for Cisterne’s dramatic switching of colours.

I hope Harbour continues on this path, one that allows the dancers to occasionally break free from the balletic constraints of the classical repertoire.

The Australian Ballet’s former artistic director, the late Ross Stretton, is warmly acknowledged in the program and cast sheet of the triple bill for his vision in bringing In the Upper Room to the company’s repertoire in 1997. Then, as now, the stager was Shelley Washington, one of the first cast dancers in In the Upper Room and who stages the ballet around the world.

For me, memories of the ’97 season are strong. Watching the new, young cast, I could recall the original cast that included Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Simone Goldsmith, Paula Baird, Nicole Rhodes and so many more great dancers, and to remember the initial, visceral impact of Tharp’s work to Philip Glass’s score.

In nine movements the dancers prance, leap and turn through complex choreography as they gradually shed most of their Norma Kamali-designed costumes and as they propel themselves into the final movement when the Glass score is enhanced by voices. The combination of the propulsive score and the haze blown onto the stage, takes the audience into an upper room of our own imagination, one that we don’t want to leave.

Dimity Azoury and Vivienne Wong were the opening couple of the sneaker wearing Stompers [also known as the ‚Äėguard dogs‚Äô of the ballet] and Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota were the ‚ÄėBomb Squad‚Äô on pointe. Both couples were outstanding in the way they connected with, and mirrored one another. Other moments I will remember include the sixth movement with Chengwu Guo,
Daniel Gaudiello, Wong and Azoury, and Natasha Kusch, whizzing around the stage like a pocket rocket fired by her perfect ballet feet.

Upper Room usually brings an audience to its feet but, sadly, not at the Sydney premiere this time. Are we still too timid in Australia to stand at the end of an exhilarating program such as this?

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