The Australian Ballet: Volt review

The Australian Ballet returns the mixed contemporary program to the stage, showcasing the depth of talent in the company with Volt. Bookended by an almost too well-matched pair of Wayne McGregor works, the evening belongs to Alice Topp, whose world premiere piece Logos proves an unforgettable highlight.

Previously seen in Melbourne as the centrepiece of 2014 mixed program Chroma, 2006 ballet Chroma again provides the opportunity to see multiple Principal Artists share the stage. Six of the twelve current Principal Artists join four fellow dancers in Moritz Junge’s androgynous costume designs.

John Pawson’s white box stage has a striking impact at curtain, McGregor’s concept of “absence” well realised in the stark simplicity. While some of Lucy Carter’s lighting is frustratingly dim, it certainly avoids any distraction on the eye other than sharp focus on the dancers.

The music of Chroma transitions from gentler sequences to rousing periods of intensity. Composer Joby Talbot has arranged his music and that of fellow composer Jack White III (of The White Stripes fame). Across the full program, maestro Nicolette Fraillon exhibits the breadth of her musicality, conducting Orchestra Victoria in a seamless blend of styles.

Masterful Principal Artists Kevin Jackson and Ako Kondo make a compelling pair. Kondo displays particularly elastic flexibility paired with high tensile strength in contorting her body to McGregor’s distinctive positions.

McGregor’s mix of sharp mechanical moves and elegantly fluid curves sits particularly well on Adam Bull, his elegantly muscular long limbs well utilised in crisp movement.

Principal Artist Brett Chynoweth is characteristically expressive, even within the rigid and exacting movement. Soloist Nathan Brook is a standout of Chroma, giving an exciting performance in a pas de deux with accomplished Soloist Imogen Chapman.

The final full ensemble section of Chroma moves to a frenzied climax. Precision of positions and frequent switching of partners requires trust and teamwork, qualities the dancers appear to have in abundance.

Burgeoning choreographer Alice Topp takes another quantum leap with Logos, an ingeniously conceived piece that deftly builds to a stunning coup de théâtre. The title of the ballet is a Greek word, meaning reason or logic; the word logos led to the creation of Logotherapy, centred on the principle that finding meaning in life is the primary motivational force for survival.

The black curtain rises on a pair that could represent a couple, or, according to program notes, could be a person facing the embodiment of their inner demon. Returning as a guest artist, former Principal Artist Leanne Stojmenov takes the form of a petite doll next to the hulking presence of Callum Linnane, shirtless, as are all the men in the work. In an emotionally charged pas de deux, Stojmenov and Linnane remain in close physical contact for almost the entire time, the opening sequence achieving extra impact by beginning and ending in silence.

Giving a clearly contemporary feel, Topp dresses the women in blue or green dresses, their hair allowed to flow naturally. The gentle serenity of Ludovico Einaudi’s score is enhanced by the piano performance of Kylie Foster.

In her first Melbourne performance since being appointed Principal Artist last year, Dimity Azoury affectingly conveys the numb pain of heartbreak and inner doubt, capably supported by the calming strength of Jackson. Seemingly effortless in his strength, Bull gives another magnetic performance, more than ably partnered by Coco Mathieson.

Designer Jon Buswell creates an air of mystery, backing the stage with a huge framed mirror that subtly reflects the dancers. Sharp squares of light seem not just to highlight the pairs of dancers but to deliberately contain them in set spaces. Even the haze appears choreographed, gently rising overhead to fill the space.

As Logos builds, the stage tabs fly out, the dancers move downstage or offstage and suddenly the “mirror” falls flat to the floor, sending a mushroom-like cloud of smoke into the auditorium. Topp gives the effect room to resonate, as the audience applauds wildly, mouths agape. A cleansing rain then begins to fall, its sound crisp and comforting as it lands on the canvas fabric of the mirror. Bull and Mathieson dance a final stirring duet in the rain. On opening night, Logos earned a very well-deserved full standing ovation.

After a second twenty-five-minute interval, the program concluded with a revival of McGregor’s Dyad 1929. Having its world premiere at The Australian Ballet in 2009, the work was seen again as part of 2013 mixed program Vanguard.

With a stage concept by McGregor and Carter, Dyad 1929 has a particularly impactful backdrop, with a white floor and rear wall studded with evenly spaced black dots. Junge outfits the dancers in a mix of nude beige and black & white tightly fitted, brief costumes.

The music of Steve Reich, entitled “Double Sextet,” features a driving, insistent pulse, tempered with moments of gentler longing. Featured musicians Stefan Cassomenos and Duncan Salton deliver excellent work on piano.

After the emotion of Logos, there is an inescapable sense of dryness to Dyad 1929, yet the work provides abundant opportunities for the dancers to shine. Given the company’s general tendency towards classical ballet, the fact that the dancers are so completely adept at modern dance is a huge testament to the depth of their skills.

The twelve dancers, ranging from Coryphées to Principal Artists, work as an evenly matched team, with no dancer more important than another. Dyad 1929 is at its best as it builds to the finale, bringing together various combinations of dancers for a final massed effect.

Full credit to Topp for dancing in Dyad 1929 on the same evening as the world premiere of her new work Logos. Where else on the world stage would or could that feat be equalled?

Special mention must also be made of Bull, who technically fits the bill of elder statesman and yet continues to be seen at the peak of his career as a thrillingly fresh and vibrant dancer. Appearing in all three works on opening night of Volt was an extraordinary feat from Bull, yet one that he all too capably takes in his stride.

Volt is scheduled to play at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 24 March 2020. With necessary government-imposed restrictions on large gatherings set to take effect from Monday, it is not clear at this point how much of the season of Volt will be seen. It is at least clear that Volt will play two performances Saturday 14 March 2020.

Volt plays at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 3 – 22 April 2020.

Footnote: It is a disappointing oversight that Guest Artist Leanne Stojmenov, while listed on the cast sheet, is not afforded a biography or photo in the souvenir program.

Read the Melbourne casting for Volt.

Read the Volt program notes.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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