An infinite array of storms, swans and stars

In 1996, the last year of her artistic directorship of the Australian Ballet, Maina Gielgud programmed a triple bill of new works by Australian choreographers, Meryl Tankard (The Deep End), Stanton Welch (Red Earth) and Stephen Page (Alchemy).

It was a brave move by Gielgud who at the time had something to prove after being shown the exit door by a board who had turned against her.

As far as I know, none of the works has been restaged in Australia in the last 16 years although Red Earth had a rebirth at Houston Ballet, where Welch is now artistic director.

Never mind. It was a statement by Gielgud, born in London, that she was not Eurocentric as some had claimed at the time.

To mark the start of the Australian Ballet’s 50th year, David McAllister has made a statement of his own, commissioning three more Australian works, by Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page.

He’s gone one further than Gielgud in that the new works all have commissioned scores if you include the input of Stefan Gregory who has played with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score for Obarzanek’s deconstruction of the ballet, titled There’s Definitely a Prince Involved.

(Gregory, a former guitarist for rock band, Faker, now creates soundscapes for theatre companies including Belvoir, Bell Shakespeare Company and the Sydney Theatre Company.)

The Australian Ballet’s program, marketed under the umbrella title, Infinity, once more raises the question: what makes a ballet or dance work Australian and also opens a possible subject for discussion – does Infinity represent a significant moment in Australian dance?

Fifty years ago, Peggy van Praagh, the Australian Ballet’s first artistic director, grappled with the question of identity, stating that “we do not wish to be self consciously Australian…”

There was little, if anything, that authentically reflected Australian in her programming. In some ways, the Australian Ballet repertoire from 1962 to 1968 side stepped the Australian themed ballets presented in the 1940s and 1950s by Edouard Borovansky and others, naïve though they might have been.

Rex Reid and Beth Dean had choreographed Corroboree, to John Antill’s score of 1946 and Borovansky had presented his Outlaw, based on the life of Ned Kelly, as well as his works, Black Swan and Terra Australis.

In the first decade of the Australian Ballet, the concepts of Australia and Australians emerged in dated ways that now seem quaint, with Melbourne Cup, set in the Victorian age, and The Display, choreographed by Robert Helpmann, a publicity-attracting work that linked the mating display of lyrebirds with the mating rituals of Australian blokes at a picnic.

In the 1970s, Australiana within the repertoire had almost disappeared but by the 1980s, the Australian Ballet returned to the comforting tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and The Sentimental Bloke, followed by a rather wobbly step into the 1990s, with My Name is Edward Kelly.

But something more authentic and interesting was taking shape in the studios of the Sydney Dance Company where the artistic director, Graeme Murphy, had choreographed Rumours (1977) showing how Australians celebrated sports and nude bathing (the later popular at the time in Sydney), followed by Nearly Beloved (1986), based on a country wedding.

Murphy’s major statement, however, came in 1980 with his production for the Australian Ballet, Beyond Twelve, a story of Aussie male youth as well as the progression of a dancer’s life. There have been few things as poignant on the local dance stage as Beyond Twelve’s final image of an older dancer, packing his dance paraphernalia and leaving the studio door, upstage centre.

Murphy’s masterpiece was to follow much later, in 1992, with Nutcracker: the Story of Clara, which traced Australia’s ballet history as well as the history of one woman.

His Tivoli of 2001, was a warm-hearted tribute to the Tivoli Circuit’s vaudeville acts of the 1930s and ‘40s. But then Murphy changed direction, and with his collaborator, Kristian Fredrikson, began what they hoped would be a trilogy of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, with the first being the highly successful, re-imagined Swan Lake.

With its references to the formative years of psychoanalysis and to the descent into madness of Giselle, it had nothing to do with Australia other than its creation by two very talented Australian men.

Murphy has subsequently experimented with full evening ballets, such as Silver Rose, and most recently, with his controversial production of Romeo & Juliet, a ballet that attracted much analysis and criticism both positive and negative.

No wonder he has called his latest work The Narrative of Nothing, the title indicating his apparent relief at not having to tell a story at all.

Murphy’s choreography for The Narrative of Nothing resembles his abstract works from his Sydney Dance Company directorship in the 1980s and ‘90s.

But while many of these were danced to the music of on-stage musicians, The Narrative of Nothing is danced to orchestral music, Brett Dean’s Fire Music, a score that premiered (in the concert hall) in Stockholm last year and in London last month.

Fire Music, a co-commission with the Stockholm Philharmonic and the Australian Ballet, was inspired by the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria.

Reminiscent in parts of Stravinsky’s ballet music, the score is relentless, loud and indicative of the fury of fire.

I imagine if you were sitting in the front of the stalls, you would feel as if the fire was burning around you.

Dean has explained: “There are satellite groups of instruments that are out in the theatre … a lot of the fast, powerful fire music is heralded by [trumpet] fanfares that resound around the whole space. There’s something about the theatricality of the sound being all around you; someone who’d heard the piece said that it’s a bit like there’s no escape, like a fire. It envelops the whole space.

“There are quite a few electronic sounds, most of which come from natural sources. There are a lot of closely miked thunder-sheet sounds right at the opening. In there somewhere is a recording that I made myself of a scraping, booming door in the Old Melbourne Gaol”.

Murphy has responded with initial explosive movements, jetes both small and large, as well as cabrioles and other allegro steps that might have suited the stage where the work premiered in Melbourne, rather than in the constricting space of the Opera Theatre stage at the Sydney Opera House.

When the choreography settles into a calmer space, we see Murphy’s signatures, circular gestures, dancers walking on the backs of others, and quirky details such as a dancer appearing to perch on the flexed foot of another.

Animalistic or aquatic references are indicated in crouching and swimming movements, and slides.

This choreography – the Sydney Dance Company style of Murphy’s years with higher legs – is tailor made for the Australian Ballet principal, Lana Jones, who displays her fearlessness and breadth of movement in The Narrative of Nothing.

On opening night in Sydney, it was a pleasure to see younger members of the company – coryphées and corps de ballet dancers – having their moment in a duet, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden, a trio by Calvin Hannaford, Charles Thompson and Brooke Lockett, and an ensemble led by Ako Kondo.

Murphy was supported by talented collaborators, with superb costume design by Jennifer Irwin (individual unitards sewn with multiple tiny mirrors) and an impressive lighting plot by Damien Cooper that featured a swinging light bulb, centre stage overhead lights that seemed to spy on the dancers, and boxed side lighting.

Gideon Obarzanek’s ballet earned the warmest audience response of the evening. The familiar Tchaikovsky music, a few tutus, a prince, and the Dance of the Little Swans are all comfortingly familiar, but the response arose, I believe, from the mixture of storytelling, ballet jokes, and striking use of the ensemble.

The collaborators raided the Australian Ballet wardrobe and scenery departments, using Hugh Colman’s Swan Lake designs but also an amusing array of backcloths including one from Massine’s Mam’zelle Angot, staged by the choreographer in Australia in 1971.

And the whole work was very well lit in a golden glow by Benjamin Cisterne.

Obarzanek’s work was inspired by his interviews about ballet with people who knew little of ballet. Swan Lake, they knew. Princes they knew. But the conversations must have drifted to true love and betrayal.

The dancers speak some of the words of the interviews. Although they hold mikes, their voices are sometimes lost in the sound of the orchestra. The words are often banal, but that, I think, is the point. What is love? Why does it descend from poetic to prosaic? Who offers the cheek and who kisses it? Why are our hopes so often dashed?

There’s Definitely a Prince Involved blends the classical ballet vocabulary with the contemporary dance moves for Obarzanek’s five freelance guest dancers. Wearing fringed and raggedy costumes, they fall and roll on the floor, like rag dolls, in sharp contrast to the tutu’d-Odette and Odile, and the black-clad Prince.

The contemporary dancers’ costumes, designed by Alexi Freeman, are cream, black and nude, and while I have read that they are printed with a motif, the print design was not visible from the back of the stalls.

Following an impeccable solo interpretation of The Dance of the Little Swans by Madeleine Eastoe, the same music becomes the basis for a unified head bobbing ballet complete with cygnet-style side to side heads by the ensemble. It’s clever, it’s funny and you don’t need to know every detail of the traditional pas de quatre to get it.

To those who complain that Swan Lake should always be the “correct” and “classical” version, the response could be that this ballet has always been a work in progress, changed, modified, and presented from different angles and points of view since it was created in 1877.

If Infinity began with an aural explosion, it ended with the sigh of Warumuk – In the Dark Night, choreographed by Stephen Page to a score by his brother, David Page, orchestrated by Jessica Wells.

As a collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet, Warumuk was proof that the vastly different movement styles of Bangarra and the classical company could merge without jarring.

Vivienne Wong was exquisite in the first section, Evening Star, and I particularly admired Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia in the duet, Eclipse Gungama.

Warumuk is in seven sections, each danced so fluidly that it seemed as though the dancers were skimming on clouds. While Page’s flexed wrists and feet were seen throughout, the most common motif was the arc, of arms and backs, and reflecting the circles of the moon and sun.

The costumes, again by Jennifer Irwin, include elegant flowing garments in black, ivory and a palette ranging from orange through to purple.

Warumuk is like a softly spoken poem, almost too gentle for the last work in a triple bill. The lighting design by Padraig O Suilleabhain is also a little too gentle. Yes, the work is about the night skies, but more light would reveal more of the dancers for audience members far from the stage.

Infinity as a whole, with its storms and stars, harks back in parts to Page’s Alchemy of 1996. Two sections in that work were called Lead, in which a storm was brewing, and Gold, referring to the morning star and the earth’s jewels.

Are these still the dance symbols of Australia today – nature – and the natural world above and below us – now that we’ve abandoned Daisy Bates or Ned Kelly, pantomimes with horses and bonnets, and picnics with beer and footballs? (Well, not entirely abandoned. The Display is, of course, returning for a season later this year in Melbourne and Sydney).

Infinity is a pleasant triple bill with nothing to frighten the audience, such as this month’s rape and rock ‘n roll works by Liam Scarlett and Wayne McGregor at the Royal Ballet.

I can’t help hoping, though, for a new generation of choreographers to come forward soon and show us a third dimension of how classical ballet can reflect Australia in this 21st century.