Dance Instruments (The Australian Ballet)

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The marriage of music and movement is a tired expression. A natural starting point for understanding dance, it’s a label that needs to be read with caution, lest it conceal a lack of substance. The Australian Ballet Contemporary Season, dance instrumentsleans on this maxim, sewing a fine thread through three works that each illuminate the very different forms such a marriage can take.

Wherever We Go, Dance Instruments, The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo © Jeff Busby

The undoubted gem of the program is the Australian premiere of Justin Peck Everywhere we go. Cleverly constructed and devilishly fast, the work springs from the forefront like the freshest of tunes. It’s been called the “magnum opus” by New York City Ballet’s young resident choreographer – a label that may very well be justified.

Certainly not a substitute for substance, the embodiment of music seems to be Peck’s first and foremost concern. His collaborator of choice is freelance singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, whose cinematic score provides a rich playground of tones and textures for the 25 dancers.

A pas de deux at the bottom of the stage captures the scintillating trills of the woodwinds, while the ensemble at the top of the stage synchronizes with the snare drum and the timpani. Geometric patterns form and dissolve with similar polyrhythm, deftly balancing Balanchine-inspired symmetry with cheeky staging that half-hides the dancers behind the scenes.

But most remarkable is the brightness of the line and the fullness of energy. The classic form is interrupted by a pelvic thrust or a careless flick of the wrist. Graceful runs become cartoonish sprints, and bodies slump to the ground before springing back up with chests forward. It’s a style that’s both deeply academic and utterly fresh, and one that sat elegantly on the company on opening night (notably on lead artists Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, and artist senior Dana Stephensen).

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Adam Bull, Adam Elmes and Callum Linnane in Obsidian Tear, Instruments of Dance, The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo © Jeff Busby

Sitting less comfortably in the company was the surprisingly anti-classic Obsidian Tear by Wayne McGregor. Almost unrecognizable with hyperarticulated limbs and staggered turns Dyad 1929 and Chroma – two of McGregor’s signature works recently staged by Australian Ballet in 2020 – this ballet for nine men is a radically different concern.

On a tilted wooden stage, amid the frenetic strings of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, dancers weave an abstract story of myth and ritual. Rope-like spines and undulating shoulder girdles are arranged in sultry duets and aggressive group dances. Brave, intimacy, violence, sacrifice: each unfolding in densely layered scenes, punctuated by nostalgic gazes or tender embraces. Although we are told that the work is inspired by geology and the great forces of the earth, religion and homosexuality feature prominently.

McGregor choreographs with liberal grammar, freely riding the quivering strings and many crescendos in Salonen’s score. The dancers directed their energy accordingly but, in such a formless and esoteric piece, the movement demanded greater confidence and clarity in its execution to allow the work’s themes to truly take flight.

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Elijah Trevitt in Annealing, Instruments of Dance, The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo © Jeff Busby

Annealed, the process by which the structure of a material becomes flexible and malleable, is both the inspiration and the name of the third work in the programme. Here, the company’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp, explores the bodily tension between strength and vulnerability amidst three massive, gleaming metal walls (stunningly designed set by Jon Buswell).

This journey is most literally rendered in the pas de deux of opening and closing. The first, from lead artists Amy Harris and Adam Bull, unfolds steadily through intricate takes and plenty of extreme peak balance. In the closing duet, it’s barefoot and warm embraces as fellow directors Dimity Azoury and Callum Linnane come to their most vulnerable state. Bryony Marks’ lyrical score continues but does little to shape the movement.

Topp’s strength is in duos. What doesn’t land so well in this piece is the entire midsection which sees the stage awash with 30 dancers dressed as Ferrero Rochers (subtlety wasn’t on the agenda with Kat Chan’s metallic costumes). Any tonal nuance built into the opening and closing scenes is lost to an in-between vocabulary that morphs into floor work, foot stamping, folk flicks and robotic arm movements – all in unison. Provoking an emotional reaction with so many dancers shouldn’t be difficult, but the work felt rather hollow – a shame considering it was Topp’s first major ensemble piece.


The Australian Ballet performs dance instruments at the Arts Center Melbourne until October 1 and at the Sydney Opera House from November 10 to 26. More information here.

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