*Correction: I incorectly stated that Alice Topp’s Scope was danced by two men and one woman. It was actually two women and one man. This has been corrected in the text below. I believe my impression of the characters’ dymanics was however not too far off.
Sydney Theatre: 26 May, 2011
The Australian Ballet
Tristan and Isolde
choreographer – Daniel Gaudiello
music – J. S. Bach Suite no. 2, Cantata no. 78, Brandenburg Concerto no. 2; Hoffmeister Viola concerto in D; Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana
The Bodytorque Chamber Ensemble
arranged and conducted by Sarah-Grace Williams
choreographer – Vivienne Wong
music – composed and played by Tiago Brissos
backdrop paintings – Tiago Brissos and Ross Turner
choreographer – Lisa Wilson
music – Paul Charlier
video production – Chris Golsby
choreographer – Alice Topp
music – James Brown
visuals – The Apiary: Lily Coates and Gavin Youngs
costumes – Crystal Dunn
choreographer – Kevin Jackson
music – Simone Pulga
piano – Duncan Salton
costume and set design – Kevin Jackson
lighting design (for all ballets) – John Berrett
The Australian Ballet has of course a long history of commissioning new works, often from Australian choreographers. For the last several years, the Company has encouraged this activity under the ‘Bodytorque’ moniker — five dancers from the company with an interest in choreography are given the opportunity to create a short (15-20 minute) ballet with dancers from the company, which they produce for the general public in a smaller theatre (smaller than the opera house, anyway) — a safe enough environment for experimentation. We balletomanes get the opportunity to see fresh creativity and serious, experimental modern ballet choreography and dancing, as well as what the future holds for the larger national company. This year’s program is certainly varied in inspiration and execution even though, or perhaps because the scale of the productions is small. Some have plots and some have concepts, more like ‘interpretive dance,’ if I can use that term without a negative connotation.
I think the most successful ballets in general tend to have very simple libretti, stories or concepts. Take for example this, the Phaidon Book of Ballet’s complete entry on the story of Nijinsky’s Jeux:
Looking for a tennis ball that has been hit some way from the court, a young man meets two girls. He flirts sometimes with one, sometimes with the other, then nonchalantly goes back to his tennis.
The plot of The Nutcracker could be probably distilled into one sentence, though this in no way detracts from the ballet. Likewise, I sometimes find modern ballets are better when approached as an utterly abstract piece of art, though I can appreciate a choreographer’s wanting to give their audience an idea of their argument.
It is impressive to consider that many if not all of the dancers in this program, many from the company’s corps de ballet and coryphées would have been learning and rehearsing these new ballets while dancing, some in soloist rôles, for the British Liaisons program, whose Sydney season only just finished. They clearly put much into their soloist rôles in the Bodytorque ballets as they dance them very well and very expressively.
Daniel Gaudiello’s Tristan and Isolde, even though it shows only an excerpt of the original myth, has a very clear plot and it is the only classical ballet in the program. The choreographer says “I am inspired this year to create a grand pas de deux in the style of Marius Petipa.” Not to be confused or compared to the Wagner opera — and it is a good thing Mr. Gaudiello’s interpretation of the myth is so different — the choreographer has chosen parts of different pieces by Bach, Hoffmeister and Mascagni to make a string of disparate music which in a way sounds very modern in its combination, not so very different from Stravinsky’s neoclassical score for Pulcinella. The music is arranged for a chamber orchestra of flute, violins, viola, double bass and harpsichord, whose volume and antique color well suits the ballet and the acoustics of the medium-sized theatre.
To begin with we witness a pas de deux with Isolde, in a white tutu, and a nobleman, in brocade, presumably King Mark. Tristan, in his breastplate, stands at the side alone, watching on. The King and Isolde begin very respectfully and courtly, and the sense of Isolde’s vulnerability comes across as well as the sense that both are proud in their own way. Then the King’s lifts and shifts of Isolde become very intricate, the more entwining movements become uncomfortable, even shocking, as they are essentially strangers in an arranged marriage. The King dances a solo, strong and quite fast and energetic, but rather cool and courtly. Isolde then presents herself to dance with Tristan, but he takes the hand of her servant instead. The servant dances allegro alone, and over crossed swords which Tristan places for her, in an exotic, exuberant manner, but not exactly historical, wiggling her hips and shoulders.
The scene then changes to an outdoor night scene, the shadow outline of a castle and an obscured moon are projected on the back wall. Tristan, alone, dances very fluidly with long leaps and expansive gestures, expressing great passion and frustration. He finishes kneeling, leaning on his sword in contemplative despair. A figure in a monk’s habit appears, Tristan moves quickly toward it with his sword, the hood comes off, and it’s Isolde. She is reticent to embrace him, but then throws off the cloak, under which she wears a diaphanous, flowing night gown, and becomes apprehensive again. They are separate, but hold either end of the cloak. He approaches, they separate but eventually make contact. The lifts and turns of the grand pas de deux then seem to develop and propagate naturally. The music is the famous aria from Cavalleria Rusticana, the flute taking the vocal line, perhaps a bit over-familiar to be absolutely perfect for the pas de deux (Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, I fear, has made it too late to use this piece in anything else now). Their entwining feels much more natural than in her dance with the King. The ballet ends on the climax, they slowly build up to a high lift, held, reaching upward, then turning, falling to lie together in a corner of the stage.
Mr. Gaudiello clearly has a vision for a full length, three act ballet, of which we see the heart of alone. The counter weighing of the two pas de deux, the well-judged degrees of coolness, warmth and heat of their expression, the two male solos, showing the men as foils, and the already quite strong supporting rôles in Isolde’s servant were interesting and show both remarkable characterization for such a short piece as well as the opportunity for deeper characterization for the missing connecting scenes and Acts I and III. The dancers came into their own, especially at the end, drawing one into the story with their dancing, and the classical choreography, especially the partnering, is very difficult and technical. The story of the myth is potentially simple enough and the interaction of the characters interesting enough to suit ballet, not to mention the magic and potions. The choreography can be very inventive and has some very moving gestures, especially the way Mr. Gaudiello has the characters approach and reach to each other. He also shows a reassuring curiosity in and sense of history. While the reclaiming of music based on social dance forms, i.e. the sarabande, minuet, allemande etc. of Bach’s suites, for a new score is a very good idea (indeed most of Mozart’s ‘dance music’ is likewise in this form), and the pieces are well-chosen, suiting closely their respective scenes, and the oddness of the mixture is appealing, it may be hard to sustain as a one-and-a-half-hour score. It may be better to commission an entirely new score for the full length version of the Tristan and Isolde.
In creating Touch Transfer, Vivienne Wong says she was interested in the simplicity of lines and brush strokes in sketches, and the analogous gestures, though more ephemeral in a physical sense, in dance. The choreography is ‘contemporary’ in style, one woman and two men take part with three large painted backdrops with streaks, spots and lines in red, green, blue and yellow, which correspond to the dancers’ movements. The music consists of arpeggios on a solo acoustic guitar (playing into a microphone), with occasional pings on the high string and knocks on the guitar body. The first of the three sections of this ballet is the most brightly lit. The men’s movements are sinewy, each folding in and entwining his arms, or they swing their backward-twisted arms, or they strongly bend their torsos and crouch. The woman moves much more softly and fluidly with much grace. Her bending down with curved back and rising and reaching in the the first part were quite moving. The interactions of the dancers start with copying and following, becoming organic and they approach, crossing paths, and pass, one in front of the other. They touch occasionally. The second part is crepuscular, the light just catching the hollows and muscles and small curves of their bodies. They spend more time in their movements now, especially the men, lying or sitting on the floor, resting, then partly rising. The last section has them dancing more quickly, the men dancing along side the woman in turn, and the lighting brings out the ultraviolet-blue lines in the backdrop, which form sketch outlines of the dancers.
Lisa Wilson’s idea for Contours stemmed from her father’s Ph.D thesis on children’s perception of mapping. For her ballet, she was inspired by “the interior landscape of the body and the mind” and starts from there. Quite a challenging premise which could get very complicated. Video projection for the background shows first a starry sky, then pans down to show a time lapse of a city at night, with headlights streaming through a carpet of twinkling lights. The video art is simple enough not to be distracting with the dancers, but effectively contributes to the mood of the piece. There is a string stretched across the stage from the lower front corner of stage left up to the diametrically opposite corner in the back, which shines slightly in the light. A woman in a stunning red dress in the otherwise monochrome setting, enters as do two men more somberly dressed. The electronic music starts with low gentle modulations. The woman falls and rises, at times lying relaxed and prone on the ground, while the men move around her, and she rises again. This pattern of movement generally continues through most of the piece. The three of them stretch and pull the string, moving under it. The men’s movements are quite contorted.
Later the music becomes faster and louder and the dancers’ movements become correspondingly faster and more intermixed. The men at times hold, carry and lower the woman, at one point both leaning over her together. At times they dance with her, but their interactions always seem to convey quiet, ambiguous feelings, in the male-female interactions the man seem insouciant. This tone mainly continues level through to the end.
Alice Topp takes for her inspiration for Scope human life-cycles and mortality, “the ageing vessel which encloses our energetic selves.” A universal and basic idea which has much to explore. Two women and a man stand before three separate screens, onto which a video of each dancer is projected, moving very slowly over a cloudy-white background. The music is electronic and fairly simple. The dancers’ movements are graceful, expressive and economical, sometimes very fresh and inventive. The patterns the three form on the stage are interesting as they approach and part, the man partnering each of the women in turn. Though like the two previous works in that the sexes of the dancers aren’t balanced, the sense of this one, with its fine mixture of joy and wit and poignancy, is closer in feeling to the triangle in François Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim. The dancing is very technical in general, and includes some very rapid turns. Their arms are in general very open and their movement strongly felt. The piece arrives at a kind of climax when all three dance, then attenuates to a lovely, understated ending when first one woman leaves the stage, then the man soon follows who had been partnering the other woman. She is left alone in front of the screen showing an image of herself rising up, her back to the audience, and she gestures poignantly up, half reaching half pointing, and the lights go out.
Kevin Jackson’s Encomium “abstractly explores a boy’s coming of age, a time when the youngster robustly pulls away from his mother’s nurturing arms and goes into the world alone. Through the mother’s eyes, I have explored the loneliness she feels when her boy leaves, and the sense of pride they share when he returns to her, as a man.” This is again a basic and universal idea (well, more-than-half-way-to-universal, anyway), not unrelated to Scope’s, but completely different in execution. The set is all black except for a long, narrow red velour curtain about three-people-widths across at the back of the stage. The Son and the Mother, wearing body stockings, sit before the curtain, then rise and dance, the Mother leading the Son who imitates exactly her movements a few steps behind. The movements are varied and unpredictable. He breaks free eventually and dances separately, and his movements have a different character. At times his leaps and reaching arm movements give way to a tight, contorted paroxysm in his arms. Mother and Son hug one another and he moves to the curtain which wraps around him. While she dances alone, a little sadly, he insensibly vanishes. She dances loneliness, but at one point crumples into a paroxysm like the Son’s before. She eventually makes her way to the curtain, kneels, and lifts her outstretched arm, while a man’s arm, poking out from behind the curtain, follows hers. The Son then emerges and the two are joyously reunited. He then dances alone in a very expansive, generous way, with long leaps and turns and strong graceful outstretched arms and legs, the steps arranged in a quite original way. The Mother meanwhile comes to the front of the stage, kneeling as she watches, rapt. Another man comes out from the curtain and the two men partner each other in a fresh, original and touching way. All three embrace and the ballet ends.
The choreography was memorable, quite original and expressive without any unnecessary movements. The “pride” of the Mother at the end didn’t feel quite right to me, though. I don’t think pride was the right emotion here, at least not the one on top. Surely a parent’s love is unconditional and not dependent on pride? What if the Son had come back a failure? The ballet doesn’t really suggest this obverse possibility and might have been even better as a piece of theatre had it done so subliminally.