Dance

The Australian Ballet: Kunstkamer review [Melbourne]

The mighty State Theatre stage becomes a bustling, beautiful “room full of art” as The Australian Ballet brings modern masterwork Kunstkamer to Melbourne. 

“Ouch!” 

As David Hallberg makes a silky smooth glide down into a front split, the cry rings out from the stage, instantly establishing a gentle touch of cheeky, unexpected humour that is set to bubble along beneath the dance spectacle on show.

Amidst lingering COVID-delayed productions, Kunstkamer serves as a vivid signal of the tone to come as Hallberg settles into his role as artistic director. With The Australian Ballet approaching their 60th anniversary, the performance of this work created for the 60th anniversary of Nederlands Dance Theatre (NDT) is a visionary way to both celebrate and demonstrate the depth of talent in the company.

Placed in a time of year when there may previously have been a “mixed program,” Kunstkamer is like a triple bill on steroids, the seamless result of the respectful, sympathetic collaboration of four prolific choreographers. Ostensibly a piece of modern dance, the work is firmly rooted in the rigour, line, beauty and exquisite expression of classical ballet. As such, the piece is an ideal fit for The Australian Ballet, and the company works as one to present a dazzling, electrifying showcase.  

Having co-created more than 60 works for NDT, Paul Lightfoot and Sol León clearly speak the same dance language. Joined by freelance choreographer Crystal Pite and NDT associate choreographer Marco Goecke, the team has crafted a swiftly flowing program of almost twenty complementary pieces. While the distinctive style of each choreographer is evident and each piece unfolds its own delightful surprises, there is nonetheless a clear cohesion of theme and connection driving through the evening. 

Beginning each act on stage alone, Hallberg gives freely of himself to forge an even stronger bond with his new local audience. As the superstar dancer transitions to his new offstage role, this opportunity to marvel at the effortless elegance of his singular talent is one to be cherished. 

Hallberg is joined by guest artist Jorge Nozal, the pair creating a sense of a vaudevillian duo as they move in gentle synchronicity. 

Towering set pieces initially create a sense of cramped space before opening out into a vast stage. Designed by León and Lightfoot, the panelled walls with multiple doors and high windows create a grand institution where the “chamber of curiosities” unfold. 

Maestro Nicolette Fraillon again demonstrates the unflappable versatility of her musical talent, seamlessly taking Orchestra Victoria on a journey through classical works by Beethoven, Gluck and Purcell through to modern pieces from Arvo Pärt and Ólafur Arnalds. 

“Bartók” is accompanied by an incredibly expressive solo tambourine, with solo piano and solo violin also showcased in act two.

Amidst the quirky technicality of dance there are moments of emotion, a highlight being early act two pas de deux “Forever A Second Déja Vu,” danced with aching beauty by Lilla Harvey and Callum Linnane. Throughout the evening, Linnane radiates the raw, exciting energy that makes his every performance a thrill to behold. Subsequent pas de deux “Gluck” sees soloist Jill Ogai pair with coryphée Lucien Xu to potent effect.

Principal artists Amy Harris and Brett Chynoweth compete the set of featured cast members. Harris and Chynoweth each bring a distinctive blend of sterling technicality and characterful presence.

Over and above the striking work of the featured artists, it is the ensemble dances that are the highly memorable, visual highpoint of Kunstkamer. Whether it is ten or fifty, each time a set of corps dancers appear, there are unique sequences featuring magical ripples and pulses that can only succeed like this when a company of dancers performs with a single heartbeat.

The finale builds to a grand stage picture, in which the full company positions themselves as for a characterful group portrait. In a moving touch, the 2022 dancers are backed by the overhead projection of The Australian Ballet 1965 company. 

Kunstkamer plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 11 June 2022. For tickets, click here.

Kunstkamer will be streamed live on Ballet TV on 10 June 2022. For details and tickets, click here

The Melbourne Kunstkamer cast sheet can be read online. This includes further dates when David Hallberg is scheduled to perform.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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