Jiri Kylián: The brightest star in Neon Lights

Christopher Wheeldon, George Balanchine and Antony Tudor have all choreographed to the stately music of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte and although I’ve only seen Wheeldon’s ballet – a pas de deux – it’s hard to think that any of them surpass Un Ballo, the small miracle that Jiri Kylián choreographed to the same music in 1991.

The West Australian Ballet’s brief season in Sydney opened with this work, created for the company he then directed in The Hague, Nederlands Dans Theater II.

Danced to both the Pavane as well as Ravel’s Le tombeau de couperin, it contains much of Kylián’s trademark choreography – from the use of fabric as part of the dance, to the stamps of the feet, to the slides along the floor and the elegant yet simple black silk dresses worn by the women.

Un Ballo seems to glow from within, in the same way as Kylián’s luminous and mysterious Bella Figura and Petite Mort.

And although Un Ballo tells no particular story, each of the seven couples moving in unison imply their own separate relationships as they dance under a bank of candle-like lights.

Kylián says that Un Ballo is a dance to music, nothing more, but for me, it expressed trust and mutual support through connections, balances, contacts and pauses.

Heads rest on the spines of others, backs arch in unison. The women’s skirts are used as frames as they bend their bodies back over the men and as the couples fall to the floor, they curve their bodies together. Then, as the men stand, they bend their heads to the women who hold them with their outstretched arms and hands.

In WA Ballet’s program of four short works, with the umbrella title, Neon Lights, it was a leap too far to top that opening work although the link to the next work worked well with all the company dancers sitting on the stage. As a mike was handed from one to the next, each dancer spoke briefly and with humour of where they were born and grew up.

It was a sweet introduction to Strings 32, a piece by the company’s artistic director, Ivan Cavallari, and danced to music by Paganini, Kreisler and Handel with a guest violinist, Madeleine Antoine, sharing the stage with the dancers.

Cavallari’s program notes refer to transience:

Multiple strings
Some make music
Some we tie
Others we cut
For a fraction of time we hold them
Few last forever.

The dancers literally interpret the idea by their attachment at various parts of their bodies to slim, stretchy strings that they manipulate into horizontal, vertical and criss-cross shapes across the stage. The third movement of the work, for three dancers, is the most effective as they pull the strings into a three point V shape.

Towards the end of the ballet, the violinist’s formal dress, with a long train, is masked by a cluster of white balloons, an idea similar to the red balloon costume worn by one of the female dancers in Pina Bausch’s Masurca Fogo.

But in Strings 32, the blown-up balloons seem an unnecessary adornment rather than an expression of the artist or the work itself. (In most of her works, Bausch’s women, including the balloon woman, express their vulnerability).

Visually interesting, Strings 32 struggles to sustain interest as the choreographic patterns slowly evolve.

Lickety Split, created by the Spanish choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo, for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is a charming and intriguing work for three couples dancing to the lyrics of Devendra Banhart, an American singer-songwriter and guitarist whose style has been described as “trippy-hippie tone poetry”.

Whatever it is, I’d to hear a lot more of it, with its weird, whimsical lyrics like

“Now because my teeth don’t bite
I can take ‘em out dancin’
I could take my little teeth out
and I could show them a real good time”

The isolations, falls and wriggly gestures of the dancers express the twists and turns of love. Cerrudo, who worked with Kylián at Nederlands Dans Theater, is clearly following in the footsteps of the master, perhaps with more offbeat humour but with the same warmth and humanity.

The final work, Garry Stewart’s The Centre and Its Opposite, was choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet to an electronic score by Huey Benjamin in 2009.

In putty grey costumes the dancers strike ballet poses, for example tendu devant with arms in fourth position, and then deconstruct them, in the manner of William Forsythe in the late 1980s.

Here, the Neon Lights title of the program is represented in the setting – a bank of neon strips that frame the dancers and, at one point, lower towards the floor to capture them like specimens in a cage.

Stewart has explained that the title, The Centre and Its Opposite, refers to the way the dancers in turn use their “wiles” to force the audience’s focus away from the centre of the stage but the word ‘centre’ could just as easily be seen as a reference to the strong abdominal core necessary to execute ballet steps and hold positions.

Either way, the combination of Stewart’s upright then off-centre choreography and Benjamin’s music was not one of the most successful collaborations but if the response of the audience was an indication, it did make an impact through its busy energy and the thunderous score.

The season continues at the Sydney Theatre until Sunday 21 October.

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Un Ballo, Royal Ballet School dancers, 2012 photo © Johan Persson

David Mack and Jayne Smeulders, WA Ballet, Un Ballo, photo © Jon Green

Strings 32, WA Ballet, photo © Jon Green

Strings 32, WA Ballet, photo © Jon Green

Strings 32, WA Ballet, photo © Jon Green

Meg Parry in Centre and its Opposite, WA Ballet, photo © Jon Green