Commencing its 2016 Melbourne season in top form, The Australian Ballet continues its recent trend of exciting modern dance programs with Vitesse.
Following a style that began with Vanguard (2013), continued with Chroma (2014) and, arguably, peaked with 20:21 (2015), Vitesse features carefully curated modern works, high production values and thrilling ensemble work featuring dancers from all ranks of the company. If these evenings serve as a barometer of the health of the company, The Australian Ballet is in brilliant shape for 2016.
Drawing on the work of three truly great choreographers, Vitesse matches two classic pieces with an Australian premiere to create a pure dance program linked in style by the use of affective abstract formations.
Although Jiří Kylián created Forgotten Land about the evolving coastline of England, the work is a natural fit for an Australian company and audience given our connection to and appreciation of the land.
The piece has an extraordinary beginning, in which only the sound of wind accompanies the 12 dancers as they move in perfect unison without the benefit of the rhythm of music. Once the music begins, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem provides a melancholic atmosphere punctuated by resounding beats from the kettledrums and flares of energy from the brass.
The six couples are paired in complementary shades of rich earth tones, wearing loosely flowing garments designed by John F Macfarlane. Macfarlane’s scenic design is particularly striking, with muted chrome floor and burnished copper backdrop varying in appearance significantly as the lighting states change.
Deliberately breaking a stage rule, the dancers are first positioned with their backs to the audience, a decision that succeeds due to the unmistakable strength of the dancers physical presence. Kylián’s choreography has a spontaneous feel, particularly when mirroring the wave-like motion of the sea. Late in the piece, damage to the land is signified as each dancer leaves their partner and throws themself to the ground to the sound of ever diminishing bursts of fanfare. The three females that are left potentially suggest the promise of hope from Mother Nature.
After a protracted absence, it is wonderful to see highly popular Principal Artist Adam Bull back on the Melbourne stage. Ever a gracious leader, Bull once again demonstrates the tender, noble sensitivity that tempers his strength. Bull is beautifully partnered by Amber Scott, their work leaving the audience wanting more.
Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes dance the key duet in Forgotten Land, both personifying the tumultuous longing at the heart of the piece. Recently promoted Senior Artist Brett Chynoweth appears in excellent form. Dressed in vivid red, Vivienne Wong gives a particularly nimble eye-catching performance.
The second portion of the evening grabs the audience’s attention with an electric jolt from Willems and Stuck’s pre-recorded score as the curtain rises to reveal a vast black-box stage on which nine dancers sport variations of tight teal green Lycra. That electricity runs through William Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated, as the relentless music and pristine variations create a mesmerizing effect on the audience.
Forsythe creates the lighthearted feel of a dance studio, with dancers swiftly switching between high performance mode and a more casual, slinky feel when on the sides of the stage. Keeping the stage in constant motion, each dancer has their own characteristic choreography. One fleeting moment of unison work makes a striking impression.
The combination of overhead lighting and the colour of the Lycra clearly shows every sinewy muscle on the dancers, often creating the sort of effects Hollywood achieves by sewing muscles into superhero costumes. Silken pointe shoes and bare limbs gleam in the white light.
Having shone throughout 2015, Kevin Jackson remains a superb leader. A gorgeous dancer to watch, Jackson enhances his physical strength by moving with a gentle flowing grace. Jackson is more than ably partnered in excellent pas de deux work by Robyn Hendricks. Ako Kondo also joins Jackson, exhibiting her characteristic elegance and flair.
Recently promoted to Soloist, fast-rising star Benedicte Bemet looks stronger than ever and delivers thrilling, highly focused work. Charismatic Principal Artist Daniel Gaudiello, his trademark flowing locks cropped to a leaner style, performs with reliable power and presence.
In the featured presentation of the evening, acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Danse À Grande Vitesse (DGV) joins the repertoire of The Australian Ballet. Created for Royal Ballet in 2006, the ballet DGV is set to MGV, Michael Nyman’s music that was commissioned for the 1993 inauguration of the TGV high-speed train line in France.
The lights rise slowly to reveal a rear landscape of curved metal. Stiff bodies sway and weave, representing standing train passengers. As the work progresses, Wheeldon stages impressive sequences in which mechanical synchronised movement of the dancers represents perpetual motion. Joining four lead couples, the presence of the corps de ballet means that the stage can often be filled with dancers. Both unison and canon work are a delight to watch.
Amy Harris and Andrew Killian begin the journey with controlled, carefully measured strength. Hendricks and Jackson again shine in the large central pas de deux. Bemet and Hawkes are well matched in talent and commitment to beauty. In an all too brief cameo moment, agile Principal Artist Chengwu Guo, partnered by Kondo, displays his jaw-dropping speed and accuracy.
While Jean-Marc Puissant’s metal sculpture is most impressive, his costume designs are unattractive, using fabric that seems to represent the garishly streaked fabric of train seating.
Nyman’s score features pleasant music for the strings and mellow tones for the brass. Maestro Nicolette Fraillon presides over a seemingly effortless performance from Orchestra Victoria.
Lovers of modern dance will find plenty to enjoy in Vitesse.
Vitesse plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 21 March 2016, and plays in Sydney 26 April – 16 May 2016.
Photos: Jeff Busby; (photo#2 Kate Longley)