Bodytorque 2013: so far, so good, now for the future nurturing of talent

Almost a decade ago, David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet attended a conference in England where he, and many of his counterparts around the world, talked of the future of ballet.

One major theme was the nurturing of new choreographers.

And so, when McAllister returned, the idea of commissioning new works for a short season off the main stage began.

Bodytorque, the first showcase of such works began in 2004 and has continued each year (except last) with a different theme, such as women choreographing for male dancers, dance and music, pointe work, ballet and fashion and so on, and this year was titled Bodytorque:Technique.

The choreographers over the years were often dancers in the company and McAllister’s concept followed that of Graeme Murphy when he was artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company.

Murphy offered his dancers the chance to create, for example in 1991, when Alfred Taahi, Adrian Batchelor, Gideon Obarzanek and Kim Walker each choreographed a piece with a Shakespearean theme.

At Bangarra, artistic director, Stephen Page, has also given his dancers scope and encouragement to choreograph.

But what happens afterwards? How many go on to a strong choreographic career in the way that former corps de ballet dancer, Liam Scarlett, has done at the Royal Ballet.

No one could ever describe Monica Mason, the former artistic director of the Royal Ballet, as radical and daring in her programming, but after Monochromatic a piece Scarlett made for the Royal Ballet School in 2004 when he was still a student, it was clear Scarlett would be nurtured all the way forward.

He was taken into the company’s corps de ballet, but I think Mason made sure he was at the Royal as a future choreographer. He is now artist in residence there.

To return to Bodytorque 2013, a program I saw on Saturday evening, there was some real talent on show but I’m wondering where the Australian Ballet can find the benefactors who might underwrite the mentoring of the dancers who are clearly potential future choreographers and are not just workshopping an idea once during any year.

Alice Topp, an Australian Ballet corps de ballet member since 2007, for example, has a unique dance vocabulary especially in her partnering work and in the mood and themes of her work that often portray tender and fragile relationships.

Richard House, another corps de ballet member, also shows much promise as a choreographer.

Young corps members need one-on-one mentoring or secondments to other companies if they are able to develop into one of those rare men and women who can keep the art of ballet vitally alive.

The overall program for this year’s Bodytorque was strong, although only two works directly referenced the Technique tag – Halaina Hills’ Mode.L and Consandine’s In-Finite.

The excellent lighting for all the works was by Graham Silver, master electrician at the Australian Ballet and the design coordinator for all but Topp’s piece was Kat Chan, design assistant for the Australian Ballet. Chan also designed the costumes for In-Finite and Richard House’s Finding the Calm.

Both Silver and Chan brought harmony and visual interest to each work in various ways, whether that was the blue and yellow spears of lighting that criss-crossed the stage for Finding the Calm, or the projection of Benesh dance notation symbols for Mode.L.

Topp’s costume designer was Toni Maticevski whose dresses for the two women in her piece, Tinted Windows, were exquisite. Maticevski has also designed for the Sydney Dance Company and he understands how to blend the needs of dancers with the pleasure for the audience of seeing beautiful costumes with an underlying sexiness for women.

Unlike previous Bodytorque works, each of this year’s pieces were based on the ballet vocabulary and not a mixture of ballet and contemporary dance.

This was clear from the start with Ben Stuart-Carberry’s Polymorphia danced to (Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

Stuart-Carberry, a musician himself, has chosen a difficult piece of music for his two dancers, Imogen Chapman and Valerie Tereschenko who, in chic little black costumes, appear and disappear in two separately lit circles, signifying, he says in the program notes, “symmetrical and asymmetrical balance” in ballet.

The circular pathways of the choreography and the use of broadly outstretched arms and much (perhaps too much ports de bras) were the balletic equivalent of whirling dervishes in constant motion until they united in a third circle, signifying the unity of both symmetry and asymmetry.

Stuart-Carberry, just setting out on his choreographic career, also needs to be supported and mentored as he continues to create, but it might be harder for him as he is freelancing and the freelance life can be a lonely place.

Topp’s Tinted Windows was tinted (by lighting) both pink and gold and danced to the music of the young conductor and composer, Leif Sundstrup.

She has written program notes for her work but I think Topp should be confident enough in the purity of her work and its subtle narrative to allow the audience to envisage their own story from her choreography and in the case of Tinted Windows I imagined the two couples searching in their own separate ways for intimacy and protection.

Topp is truly innovative in her partnering work. The women fling their legs over the men’s shoulders, wrap their bodies around their men, manage intricate turns on their knees and are dragged across the floor.

Dancers Dimity Azoury and Vivienne Wong, in their silk and tulle dresses, and with their hair out, gave it their all as did their partners, Rohan Furnell and Calvin Hannaford. The lifts Topp gave the quartet of dancers were very difficult but they managed well with the complexities on Saturday night.

Halaina Hill’s Mode.L closed the first half of the evening. Danced to Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, the piece very clearly refers to the choreography of Balanchine, especially the beginning of his Theme and Variations in which he has the lead couple stepping into many perfectly placed tendus for before the ensemble appears and the fireworks begin.

Mode.L is a visual dictionary of classical ballet with three women and two men in practice clothes returning over and over to base (fifth position), arms in third position or bras bas but also expanding the vocabulary into turns and bigger steps in the way of a class.

The live music by a small ensemble led by conductor Simon Thew enhanced the performances by well rehearsed corps de ballet dancers, Benedicte Bemet, Jessica Fyfe, Jack Hersee and Christiano Martino and the charismatic soloist, Ako Kondo.

Finding the Calm, danced to the calming music of Johann Christian Bach and Gabriel Faure, showcased Natasha Kusen, an expressive dancer with a beautiful line in arabesque and an indefinable soulfulness. House made a clever casting choice in contrasting Kusen’s classicism and softness with the Balanchine dancer-like strength and dynamic quality of Ingrid Gow. The two were so different and yet so complementary.

Jarryd Madden and Jake Mangakahia were their equally compatible partners. From a visual point of view, this was the most satisfying and complete work of the evening with a combination of effective spot lighting, and bars of bright orange side lighting that at times resembled the line of fiery skies in the paintings of Tim Storrier.

It’s so easy to make connections in writing about dance – oh, there’s a piece of Nacho Duato, or, say, Wayne McGregor, and I for one am guilty of associations.

But sometimes, as in the case of Ty King-Wall’s The Art of War, images spring into the mind that are not just choreographic links but moods, intentions and narrative.

The work takes its title from the classic book of the same name by Sun Tzu who wrote on the principles of war and winning strategies.

The battle in King-Wall’s story revolves around four men, dressed in simple grey pants and tops, and one woman, in a pleated orange dress who immediately brought to my mind the role and appearance of the Grecian-dressed Action in Massine’s Les Presages.

Benedicte Bemet, a young dancer, brought a serene quality to this role one that seems to represent the pacifier within a group of four men who engage in their own macho war with the result that nobody wins.

Their battle conjured up more memories of Les Presages, a ballet that foretold the beginning of the Second World War. The final scene of that ballet pitched Death against life and love.

I’m not sure that the boxing ring of light and the neon marks on the men’s chests added to King-Wall’s narrative but it was good to see the AB showcase at least some of the men in the company as gutsy blokes!

Joshua Consandine, a former principal with the Australian Ballet, brought humour and a fast ride to the last of the pieces, In-Finite, in which each of the five dancers represented the thoughts and emotions of all dancers as they rehearse and perform the most difficult art form of all – ballet.

With a quick flick of a pointe shoe (Madeleine Eastoe), the flutter of a hand or the fiddling of the feet to find the right position (Heidi Martin), or the despair and gloom of one dancer who ends up in a headstand (Andrew Killian), In-finite speaks of what Consandine knows best, ballet technique and how dancers fight daily as they battle with themselves to reach the impossibility of perfection.

In the manner of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude…( there we go again, comparisons), Consandine has the two men (Killian and Brett Simon) and the three women on pointe (Eastoe, Martin and Karen Nanasca) moving very rapidly and in groupings and pathways that constantly surprise.

Consandine chose the music of Vivaldi – in honour, maybe, of a choreographer he admires, Jiri Kylian, who chose Vivaldi as one of the composers for his Bella Figura.

In-Finite is funny, it’s totally engaging and it needs to be kept alive in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire.

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