Hot on the (pointe shoe) heels of two main stage seasons, The Australian Ballet is straight back on stage, hosting the pandemic-delayed modern dance festival, DanceX.
Theatres have well and truly swung their doors wide open again, and yet the thrill of returning to live performance remains fresh and exciting. Dancers are to be especially admired for their extraordinary fortitude in preserving their strength, fitness and finesse, all while being robbed of month upon month of the precious oxygen of live audiences. Every opportunity to celebrate the intrinsic bond between artist and audience is one to be warmly embraced.
Arranged in three parts, DanceX sees a generous program of modern dance from nine companies roll out over 12 very full days. The celebration makes an auspicious beginning in Part One, in which dancers of The Australian Ballet perform in an eclectic quadruple bill, filled out by pieces from Sydney Dance Company, Lucy Guerin Inc, and Bangarra Dance Theatre.
On opening night, artistic director David Hallberg introduced Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson, who praised the respect shown by The Australian Ballet in inviting him to be there to give a Welcome to Country. Echoing Uncle Bill’s sentiments, Hallberg referred to the “unity in community” when dance companies come together like this.
DanceX Part One opens with nine dancers from The Australian Ballet performing the Australian premiere of I New Then, by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger. Having premiered in 2012 at Nederlands Dans Theater, the personality and individuality of the piece bring to mind NDT’s Kunstkamer, performed by The Australian Ballet earlier this year.
A quirky, often startling work, I New Then begins with Callum Linnane shadowed by Adam Elmes before gradually introducing the full cast. Dressed in casual street wear, their hair unstyled, the dancers project an easy-going, real-world vibe. A soundtrack of Van Morrison music adds to the raw, edgy feeling. The black box stage has a large set of black poles in the upstage left corner, creating a seperate zone to the full stage.
Featuring moments of welcome humour, the work is finely calibrated in its waves of energy, moving from gentle silence to dazzling full company power. Midway through brings a terrific climax, with all dancers gradually moving together in crisp unison, the tightness of this sequence all the more impressive given the seeming randomness of the moves.
Linnane delivers a fabulous solo as he watches and reacts to Dimity Azoury and Elmes slowly and romantically undressing. Like a drama exercise on steroids, Linnane cycles through a range of voices and physical characterisations, at times practically appearing to be speaking in tongues.
As kinetic energy builds in the final movement, all dancers gradually undress to their underwear, increasing the sense of candid exposure of their natural selves.
Beginning with a distinct change of pace, Liam Green and Mia Thompson dance a slow, sensual pas de deux to the evocative cello concerto Klātbūtne by Pēteris Vasks. This intimate duet is the first movement of ab [intra], the acclaimed 2018 work from Sydney Dance Company.
As ab [intra] proceeds, the company of 13 dancers, androgynous in appearance, gradually enter and perform the increasingly fluid second half, in which choreographer Rafael Bonachela utilises ambient electronic music by Nick Wales. This movement proves a complementary partner to I New Then in its vocabulary of surprising movement executed with great flair.
Throughout ab [intra] there is a strong sense of theatrical style, particularly in the incorporation of the subtly kinetic lighting design of Damien Cooper. Energy lifts as the affecting piece builds to a full company climax before one final, highly expressive solo from Dean Elliott.
Following interval, a change of pace sees a gently hypnotic pas de deux from Lucy Guerin Inc as Samantha Hines and Lilian Steiner show the audience How To Be Us. The brisk world premiere work begins in tight synchronisation to the beat of a metronome before introducing elements of characterful individuality. This individuality is clearly attributed to the unique creation process, in which choreographer Lucy Guerin incorporated choreography from the dancers themselves.
Hines and Steiner work as a tight team, dancing in close proximity throughout How To Be Us. The kinetic choreography draws on the pair’s athleticism, which is sweetly tempered by their grace.
While the costumes, by Geoffrey Watson, initially appear black, each dancer has vibrant colour on the rear of their costumes, allowing for vivid pops of colour that are carefully worked into the choreography.
In a suitably grand finale, Bangarra Dance Theatre presents their celebrated 2010 work, Terrain. Evoking the salty landscape of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, choreographer Frances Rings creates a stirring sense of ritual and storytelling, moving from an all-male troupe, to all-female before ultimately integrating the company of 15 for the final sequences.
Strikingly costumed by Jennifer Irwin, Terrain brings a touch of the earth on stage, with the white clay adorning the dancers gradually covering the stage and rising in clouds when stirred. Beginning in the black box space, the work introduces an abstract landscape backdrop, which later, in a stunning effect, is gradually lit from behind with a rising golden aura.
Dancing to the emotionally charged music of David Page, the Bangarra dancers work seamlessly as a team, with little emphasis on solo or duet work. Shared intent and focus are clearly transmitted, and the dancers impress with the level of strength displayed when called upon to make expressively slow movements.
As a wonderful final touch, the full ensemble of dancers joins their counterparts from Bangarra on stage for a massed curtain call. The exuberant opening night audience showed their gratitude and admiration in an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The opportunity to sample so many top flight companies in one abundant program will be a boon to lovers of contemporary dance, who are set to revel in the incredibly broad scope of DanceX.
The DanceX Cast Sheet can be read online.
DanceX Part One plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 22 October 2022.
DanceX Part Two plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne 25-28 October 2022.
DanceX Part Three plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne 29 October-1 November 2022.
For tickets to DanceX, click here.
Photos: Kate Longley