Review: The Australian Ballet’s “Dancing Instruments”

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Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Notice published on November 10

As the lights go down on a buzzing auditorium, David Hallberg, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, takes the stage. With characteristic zeal he presents “Instruments of Dance” – an eclectic triple program led by three of the world’s greatest choreographers, in collaboration with three living composers. He then gives the public a simple instruction: form an opinion on each of the works presented. “Instruments of Dance” is precisely the performance to excite critical engagement; the marriage of dance and music is examined through three distinct lenses, with each piece capturing the the spirit of the times with unfailing originality.

The curtains rise on the fervor of the gladiators Obsidian Tear, an all-male piece created in 2016 by renowned British choreographer Wayne McGregor. Entangled in a spellbinding score by Esa-Pekka Salonen, nine men attack the stage with wild intensity. The dancers push, heave and kiss each other in an erotically charged dive into the male psyche, playing with themes of power and sacrifice. Inspired by a story about the Islamic State throwing suspected gay men from the rooftops, McGregor masters plot and pacing. Although the symbolism embedded in the piece sometimes wavers on the excess, the choreographer’s gift for empathetic storytelling is moving.

Donning long red pants amidst a company of black-suited men, Adam Elmes, in the opening night cast, was the misfit and offender of the bunch, and the superb centerpiece of Obsidian Tear. Its natural fluidity balanced the piercing belligerence of other outstanding performers Adam Bull and Callum Linnane, injecting a much-needed tenderness into a piece burning with manly tension. Reflection on the hyper-masculinity of Obsidian Tear, I am conflicted as to whether the work challenges patriarchal male dominance or supports it; as an undercurrent of desperate vulnerability swells beneath Obsidian Tear, work is largely defined by conventional representations of masculinity. In the context of a society that is moving away from a strict gender binary, this violent and feisty representation of the masculine seems somewhat restrictive.

Whether Obsidian Tear builds on traditional gender norms, Alice Topp’s Annealed works to transcend them. Using a biochemical term for heating metal to increase its malleability as a thematic springboard to communicate the inherent strength of vulnerability, Topp embraces non-binary expression. The male dancers swing long metallic skirts like carousels around their torsos as the dazzling Samara Merrick swoops in with penetrating precision. The company crosses the line between pure classicism and strikingly new movement with characteristic virtuosity, accelerated by the glorious score of Bryony Marks. Set design and lighting design by Jon Buswell illuminate Kat Chan’s glittering costumes, providing a stunning backdrop to Topp’s ambitious ideas.

Everywhere we go stands out as the thrilling climax of “Instruments of Dance”. Alongside two volcanic works of abundant thematic power, this nine-part ballet by American choreographer Justin Peck presents audiences with another flavour: the pure and dizzying joy of movement. On an effervescent score by independent singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere we go recalls the marching bands, candy pops and Technicolor musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And yet, an age-old sensibility animates this play: a joyously plotless fantasy nodding towards the “sunny nihilism” of Peck’s generation.

That night, Bénédicte Bemet shone in the charming foam of Everywhere we goradiating a flirtatious quality reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Ann in roman holidays. So has Jill Ogai, whose impressive agility works to anchor this floating piece. Peck’s penchant for classical forms is underscored by Karl Jensen’s witty and geometric scenography.

Persevering with Hallberg’s vision of exposing Australian audiences to new and challenging choreographic works, “Instruments of Dance” is an uplifting triple bill sure to satiate dance lovers.

– TAYLOR VENTER

‘Instruments of Dance’ continues until November 26.

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