Three tales of endurance: Inside stories, luxurious squandering & the Aussie Ballet braves

If Wayne McGregor’s mind could be tracked by GPS, the route might take us from a science lab, to a library stacked to the ceilings with esoteric books, to a final destination that we didn’t even know was on the map.

When he talks or writes about his ballets, the density of his sentences demand at least a second read and often more. Or maybe none.

We don’t need to examine in detail every element of his works or puzzle over the narratives.

His dancers’ movements tell the tale and our own already busy minds can decide what we see, or want to see in his works, especially his shorter ballets such as Chroma and Infra.

Choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 2008, Infra gives the audience choices, drawing the eyes above the stage and/or directly onto the the stage.

The 18 metre LED screen above has a magnetic attraction similar to the way our eyes like to follow the ribbons of neon news that flash around the perimeter of big city buildings.

On the screen, electronically created images of people, going about their everyday life, walk across a pathway, and while they have no facial features each one reveals slightly different aspects of their personality.

Below, on the stage itself, the dancers reveal much more – their fragile inner life.

The LED artworks of Infra’s set designer, the English artist, Julian Opie, can be seen in cities around the world, including Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) that purchased one of Opie’s works in 2008.

GOMA’s description of that work, titled ‘People walking. Coloured’, perfectly describes the activity on Infra’s screen: “Each figure in Opie’s LED based work is faceless and dressed in a generic outfit suggestive of someone on a city street. Each has a gait and posture with unique and strangely life-like qualities, despite the minimal elements used in their depiction. This flow of bodies has no discernible beginning or end, creating a hypnotic, mesmeric rhythm suggestive of the endless flow of people in contemporary cities”.

The mesmeric effect of Infra’s LED figures might have overwhelmed the dancers but McGregor made sure that the main focus is on the dancers as they move to the subtle and unobtrusive score by Max Richter – (strings and piano only, with occasional static).

MGregor’s choreography for 12 dancers – six women (on pointe) and six men – includes his trademark rippling bodies, extended and manipulated limbs, and the extraordinary way he manages to show the dancers moving from deep within, as if their skeletal frame and organs propel them rather than the strength of their muscles.

Infra ends with a surprise when ordinary people, not dancers or LED images, appear in unison, showing no emotion as they make their way across the stage. Another crossing has been made by another anonymous crowd. The turmoil of our private lives continues.

Every one of the 12 dancers in Infra should be proud of their performance.

Infra is the last work of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill that begins with David Bintley’s Faster and is followed by Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory.

For this new ballet Harbour worked in close collaboration with the architect, Kelvin Ho, who also designed his Filigree and Shadow in 2015.

Filigree was about anger and aggression while Squander and Glory is based on the more obscure idea of excess energy as it’s explained in The Accursed Share, in which the French writer, Georges Bataille, writes on the concept of wasting energy, or as he puts it “luxurious squandering of energy in every form”.

The after image I had of the ballet is one of black and gold, with the leotards, tights and tops all black and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting adding a golden glow to the dancers’ bodies.

Although there are 13 dancers in the ballet there appears to be 26 as they’re all reflected in a mirror upstage.

The focal point of Ho’s design is an object that resembles an Aztec-like structure or a cluster of prisms. Does it represent excess? Maybe.

The habit of squandering seems to focus on the audience at one point, when the house lights go up and the audience sees their reflections in a mirror upstage.

Squander and Glory’s score is Michael Gordon’s Weather One, composed for a string sextet and inspired by the chaotic patterns of weather, beginning with the ominous sound of thunder.

Nicolette Fraillon, the Australian Ballet’s music director and chief conductor, has described the work as “almost baroque”. Perhaps that’s why, for all its speedy choreography, I found the ballet strangely calming.

It ends with the dancers forming a semi circle around the object as if they have exhausted their energy and are ready to let go – for the moment.

The triple bill’s overall title, Faster, refers to the ballet Bintley choreographed for the Birmingham Royal Ballet as a precursor to the London Olympics held in 2012.

Although it’s been performed elsewhere since its premiere, Faster is an occasion piece that was clearly relevant when the United Kingdom was looking forward with excitement to the Olympics.

Now, it’s seems destined to be archived in the odd category of ballets based on sport. They seldom work well and rarely have a long life.

For the Sydney Olympics in 2000 the Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Stephen Baynes, was asked to choreograph a ballet to mark the occasion. As far as I know, his ballet, Personal Best, has never been performed again.

In 1924, Bronislava Nijinska choreographed Le Train Bleu, set at a French resort. The dancers, depicting various sportsmen and women were dressed by Chanel.

In 1924, the dancers playing the role of weight lifters were probably hilarious.

No longer. The Train has gone into the category marked “fun but almost forgotten”.

Another almost forgotten ballet is Nijinsky’s Jeux in which the three dancers wear tennis costumes and the props are a racquet and tennis balls.

At least Jeux had a narrative and purpose*, unlike Faster, a ballet that is mainly a display of athleticism and muscle tone.

There were highlights: an elegant pas de trois for gymnasts (excellently danced by Richard House, Jarryd Madden and Imogen Chapman on the opening night) and an intricate, technically difficult, often touching, but too long pas de deux for the “Fighters” (danced by Ako Kondo and Andrew Killian who gave it their all).

The Australian Ballet dancers are remarkable. They will do (almost) anything asked of them by choreographers even if, as in Faster, they have to wear bathing caps and pretend to be synchronised swimmers, or marathon runners who, if they are women, have to display their midriffs.

Gold medals for endurance and commitment should go to all the dancers in Faster, chief among them Brooke Lockett, the leader of the marathon troupe who kept smiling as she and the marathon team kept running in their neon active wear, looking as though there’s nothing they would rather do than return to the stage the next day for a further cardio workout.

There was one light hearted moment in Faster when Ben Davis, as the Walker, shuffled across the stage, pumping his arms and wiggling his hips as race walkers do. His walk was hilarious. The audience loved him.

Faster, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney, to 26 April

* “In Nijinsky’s original 1913 production of Jeux, an innocent game of tennis develops into an ambiguous ménage à trois between the three players. The French word “jeux” encompasses a cluster of meanings, from the straightforward “play,” as in child’s play, to any game or sport. But it can also mean play-acting, role-playing with implications of masquerade and deception, as well as “gamble,” implying chance, luck, and fate”. The description of the ballet by the choreographer, Kim Brandstrup who created his own version of Jeux for The New York City Ballet.

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Infra, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Alice Topp, Infra, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Squander and Glory, the Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden, Squander and Glory, Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo and Andrew Kylian, Faster, Australian Ballet, photo © Daniel Boud