Kunstkamer opens the door to a world of curiosity and wonder. It is ravishing in its raw emotions, architectural design and pure physicality of movement and choreography – a satisfying meal that gives its audience much to digest.
Kunstkamer is a contemporary ballet originally composed for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Nederlands Dans Theater, which premiered the work in October 2019. After 12 performances the company cancelled its plans to tour the piece due to the pandemic. Fortunately, the Australian Ballet already had a contract in place to produce and perform the piece, adding to the glamour of our opening night.
It is difficult to imagine four world-class artists coming together and contributing so seamlessly to one piece with its fluid continuity of movement and design. Sol León and Paul Lightfoot of Nederlands Dans Theater collaborate with Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and German choreographer and Associate Choreographer of NDT Marco Goecke. Pite embraces the darker narratives of life while Goeke’s work has a clock-like precision in its movement style.
The ballet’s program boasts an eclectic gathering of music from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and from Benjamin Britten to Arvo Pärt. Kunstkamer loosely means “a room full of art”. Imagine arranging the most opulent individual jewels you can find, placing them in a kaleidoscope and shaking the sphere every 10 seconds to discover a new shape glistening in pools of light. Sound and light provide an intricate framework for the patterns and designs embodied by the dancers who shift and glide, moving as one. Bodies are used like architectural beams, supporting a grand edifice.
The set design includes floor to ceiling moveable walls with multiple doors that resemble a mixture of Bauhaus-like simplicity mixed with some Victorian details painted black. The design is operatic in its structure, modern and efficient. Between the lighting, costumes and design the backdrop is quite stark giving the dancers’ bodies full attention. Unfortunately, the costume design doesn’t always contrast enough with the black backdrop making it difficult to see the dancers’ legs at times. Perhaps a small quibble for an otherwise successful conjoining of elements. Humor, drama, emotion, beauty of line and choral singing collide in a collection of museum pieces.
There were many memorable moments including the Janis Joplin song Ball and Chain in which a duet expresses Joplin’s soulful voice personified. The dance is complemented by a collection of dancers vibrating like strings on a guitar during the song’s ending riff. Massive group pieces with 48 dancers on stage moving to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 were breathtaking in their musicality and form. Smaller and more intimate dances were woven in between group pieces including a beautifully danced break-out duet by Corps de Ballet members Samara Merrick and Elijah Trevitt. Merrick devoured her choreography with such passion and speed it was difficult to imagine that the steps weren’t created specifically for her in the most organic of ways. The duet was a fleeting moment but made a lasting impression.
The talent of all of the dancers came in untraditional forms including a large collection of dancers singing choral music. The movement vocabulary was broad and rarely held the fluidity of ballet for very long. Much of the choreography was more of “pop and lock” – exploding one isolated body part (pop) while contracting and tightening other body parts in certain positions (lock) all at an extreme tempo. Corps de Ballet member Timothy Coleman shone with his interpretation of this powerful style in a series of solos in Act 2, resulting in an animalistic hunger yearning to be fully realized in its primitive state. Another poignant scene involved Corps de Ballet member Lilla Harvey, who was featured as a soloist throughout the ballet. She was deftly maneuvered through the air and on the wall of the set by fellow artists Callum Linnane (Principal), Jorge Nozal (Guest Artist) and Lucien Xu (newly promoted Soloist) to a hauntingly beautiful piano score by Olafur Arnalds. Harvey and Linnane shared an intricate duet highlighting some of Kunstkamer’s more emotionally moving explorations.
And then there was Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, David Hallberg’s special performance on opening night. He is a world-class artist who generously shared the stage with his company. From his opening solo the audience was gifted with his never-ending lines, fluidity of limb and commitment to character. One moment he commanded the stage with swanlike grace and the next moment he morphed into a self-deprecating character resembling Dracula’s devoted servant Renfield. Along with his solos Hallberg shared several duets with guest artist Jorge Nozal. The two had a special connection as Nozal acted as an alter ego to Hallberg’s struggling character. Hallberg must surely inspire his young dancers to greater heights. The AB is forging into new realms of artistry and pushing boundaries along the way.
Kunstkamer is worthy of a thesis with its immense art, thoughtfulness, collaborations of design, music, intricate choreography and talented dancers. But better than reading about Kunstkamer and all its deceptively hidden treasures is to see it in person. Not only because we are so lucky to do so, but also because it is gorgeous in all its fascinations. It will give you something to relish for a long while.
Paris Wages reviewed “Kunstkammer”, performed by The Australian Ballet at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on June 3, 2022.