If the Australian Ballet has an outstanding characteristic as a company it is the athleticism and grace that underlies everything the dancers do. The big story ballets are crowd-pleasers but they do not necessarily highlight the first of these strengths so it was pleasing that the first production for 2016 did.
The three ballets were well chosen and included a premiere. They were written many years apart but also had many elements in common. One was that, despite some noteworthy individual performances, they appeared largely as ensemble pieces.
Far from being forgotten, Jiri Kylian’s ballet Forgotten Land was enjoying its 112th performance. The music by Benjamin Britten from his Sinfonia da requiem suited the grim accents of this piece which began with the land being threatened by the sea as bleak winds blew and 12 dancers faced away from the audience to the stormy sky.
As Britten’s music swirled and built in intensity, there was relief in the red or earthy colour of some costumes and the graceful movements including long pas de deux. But that one dancer after another collapsed to the floor suggested that the power was in the land and not with its frail human inhabitants. The ballet proved a showpiece for the orchestra as well as the dancers, and set a standard for other elements – set, costumes, lighting – which was unmatched on the evening.
To understand William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated it was necessary to consider the choreographers own vision: “A theme and variations in the strictest sense. Making use of academic virtuosity, it extends and accelerates is this traditional figures of classical ballet”. The music by Thom Willems and Lesley Stuck was cacophonous and percussive, and from my seat in the stalls it was at a volume that was difficult to bear. There was no such difficulty with the dancing, however. It was technically very polished and exciting, and the audience could hardly wait to show its appreciation in enthusiastic applause.
The new ballet, which gave its name to this production, was Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse From the opening sound of ominous lower strings, Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, was well across the music by Michael Nyman (of film score The Piano fame). There was no comparison with the complexity of the Britten heard earlier, but at least its repetitious nature had some connection with the choreography.
The ballet was said to convey the timeless romance of travel, with the set having fairly strong hints of the journey. The pattern was of four pas de deux, featuring some of the Ballet’s finest artists. Kevin Jackson and partner Robyn Hendricks were particularly noteworthy in this and the previous work (whereas Adam Bull and Amber Scott had carried off the honours in Forgotten Land).
But, as previously noted, the three ballets allowed the company to show its prowess in very different works and its unity as an ensemble, despite challenges such as tempo and rhythm. The same words could equally apply to Orchestra Victoria which has found new strengths since its association with the Australian Ballet was formalised. Both are State, if not national, treasures.
The picture is of Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in Vitesse. It was taken by Jeff Busby.