The Australian Ballet’s Identity brings together contemporary Indigenous dance and classical ballet in an inspiring double bill. By Leila Lois.
Clapsticks sound in the wings as a glistening, pixelated constellation spins on the backdrop. THE HUM, by Wiradjuri choreographer Daniel Riley, opens with a cast drawn from Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet delicately swaying, facing the audience. A wash of light illuminates them, throwing light and shade onto their botanical-dyed clothing. They tumble and eddy across the stage in couples and groups as a wonderfully connected ensemble, feather and possum-skin adornments around their necks following the flow of their bodies.
It’s as if the dancers are the wind, the water, the sand. Their waving arms as they roll down and backbend towards the stage floor seem to express a reverence to natural forces. They whirl, stretch, embrace and lift one another, rising sinuously like a gust of wind. In some moments their movements slow: they stand straight, facing the audience, rooted in place, breathing in and out to the cadence of a heartbeat that contrasts with waltzes and low lunges. Their legs turn as a counterpoint to their torsos as they trace patterns across the stage like circles in sand.
The dancers move across a landscape of glowing red strip lighting with a midnight-black backdrop, creating a pulsing and thrumming effect as they ripple up and down into soft backbends and lunges, their limbs leading the movement. They tumble effortlessly and twist their arms around each other, showing connection and synergy. Matthew Adey’s lighting shifts to pale lilac moonlight as Callum Linnane performs a solo featuring luscious floorwork, demonstrating how melding a contemporary dance troupe with a ballet company can accentuate the beauty in each. He melts to the floor and crawls towards his dance partner, Brianna Kell, who embraces him tenderly. Accompanied by the racing violins of Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s score, they trace each other’s bodies with feather-like softness, sweeping towards the other dancer and pulling away.
The piece progresses with a warm wash of light over the dancers, who waltz to the softening violins. Piano keys harmonise with their turns and sways. The choreography ends with the cadence of breath and heartbeat taking over the ensemble as they face the warm light, reaching to the audience to the quavering of French horns; their outstretched arms an angelic offering to the audience. This whole piece resounds with the sublime beauty of landscape and human connection.
The concept behind THE HUM emanates from Wiradjuri words murun, meaning “of life breath”, and yindyamarra, meaning “respect, be gentle, honour and do slowly”. The touching togetherness and unity between the dancers feels like a rarity. It highlights the nuances of identity, which is the theme of this double bill – identity as a sense of belonging and coming together, in contrast to its sense of individualism.
Alice Topp’s Paragon, the other half of the double bill, is a full-hearted love letter to ballet. The red velvet curtains are down for the first few minutes, building suspense as the glockenspiel-heavy score by Christopher Gordon rises in the auditorium. Topp cast trailblazing retired dancers in this piece, including David McAllister, Fiona Tonkin and Madeleine Eastoe. It rekindles their famous solos and pas de deux in front of projections of photographs of the original dance. The sepia-toned nostalgia of these images is enhanced by the swirling chrome costumes and soft gesture. Topp’s choreography is characteristically athletic and lush at the same time, as the dancers embody the romance of the ballet dream.
The opening scene – Adam Bull holding a long shawl of gossamer upon which an old photograph of the retiring principal is projected – is ghostly and serene. The combination of Adey’s design, Aleisa Jelbart’s costuming and Christopher Gordon’s score creates something majestic in moments like these, in which memory, stillness and movement coalesce. The choreography is playful as well as elegant, as dancers are lifted upside down by their partners, their legs in a frog position, their expressions buoyant. The ensemble gathers for a high-energy voguing sequence, which is idiosyncratic but, with the rustling of gold skirts, strangely hypnotic.
McAllister’s solo with a male corps de ballet is reminiscent of theatrical epics such as Spartacus: his bare chest visible under a black waistcoat, dancing with a powerful countenance and striking poses. Bull and Tonkin perform an exceptionally tender pas de deux, rolling up and down in unison, embracing and kissing, falling into a supportive catch. Tonkin stretches and spins away from Bull as seamlessly as if she were his shadow, to the score’s strings, glockenspiel and flute.
The barre sequence at the end of the piece emerges in a sweetly casual way. Even in this pared-down section, the dancers radiate their lifelong love for ballet; Paul Knobloch leans onto the barre in sideways splits with a casual charm, the dancers chatting and laughing as they wait for class to begin. The effect is saccharine but endearing. There is humour, conviviality and profundity characteristic of Topp’s choreography in this piece, which is a 60th anniversary gift to The Australian Ballet.
Ageism has long been a concern in the ballet world, with the typical ballet dancer retiring due to injury or demoted into minor roles after their 30s. The technical prowess of these older dancers is extremely impressive, and there are few moments where comparison with their younger counterparts is unfavourable.
Both works are a testimony to the increasing adventurousness of The Australian Ballet, one celebrating Indigenous culture and the other celebrating that dance can be available to us at any age, as ballet is an art form – not just an athletic practice. The sombre, expansive beauty of THE HUM contrasts with the more interior feel of Paragon, but both explore too-little-seen combinations of contemporary dancers with ballet dancers and Indigenous dance with classical ballet.
The Australian Ballet has encapsulated the incredibly varied worlds of choreography in contemporary Australia in inspiring ways, putting Australian dance back centrestage. The nostalgic complexities of both these works in tandem with the wholehearted investment of the dancers makes for a deeply moving, universally felt experience.
The audience’s rousing applause made for a profound finale to the Rising festival, ending with a note of tenderness, something perhaps underplayed in its provocative programming. Identity is a truly uplifting testimony to the power of dance to draw people together.
Identity is playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne until June 24.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Bodies of grace".
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