This year's iteration of the Australian Ballet's contemporary program includes a new work by British maverick Wayne McGregor, set to music by Max Richter
One of the most fiendishly difficult things to program is a ballet triple bill: three short pieces that speak to each other and also stand alone as individual artistic expressions. The latter requirement is easy; it’s the former that tends to stump programmers. Australian Ballet’s new triple bill, Faster, takes as its overriding theme the idea of the human body as an excellence machine; it explores the point at which organisms reach heights of perfection, and the ways in which a pursuit of personal excellence might contribute to a subsequent lack of connectivity. The result is a triple bill of almost uncanny resonances, of echoes and counter arguments. In short, it makes a complex whole out of disparate and conflicting parts.
The opening ballet, despite some spectacular and rousing moments, is the weakest. David Bintley choreographed Faster for the 2012 London Olympics, in collaboration with Australian composer Matthew Hindson and – while it has a driving, insistent quality that means to reference Ancient Greek notions of prowess and valiance – it tends to comes across as hubristic and glib. The final section turns the repetitive, exhausting grammar of fitness into something resembling a communal act, but it treats the concept of physical perfection as an unexamined absolute ideal. Given its genesis as a piece of Olympic propaganda, it’s hard to shake the Riefenstahlian overtones.
The final piece is also choreographed by an Englishman, Wayne McGregor, and deals in some ways overtly and in other ways obliquely with London as a place both acting on and acted upon. Far more profoundly alive to the loneliness and desperation of human bodies in contact with each other than Bintley’s piece, Infra employs LED screens to disconcerting effect. In works by visual artist Julian Opie, digital people constantly traverse the stage without making contact; at one point, they add to the sense of a population utterly incapable of empathy or compassion. McGregor’s choreography, on the other hand, is so exquisitely empathic, so alive with the necessity of human connection, that the ultimate effect is one of transcendence, of a society bonding through pain.
Squander and Glory, by Australian Ballet resident choreographer Tim Harbour, is a world premiere, and establishes him as one of the most formidable and exciting choreographers in the country. It’s also the most thrilling piece in the triple bill. Performed in front of a massive, frankly incontrovertible mirror, it would function as a witty commentary on the narcissism and sensuality of the modern dancer were it not for the reflection of a large rusted sculptural monument that dwarfs the performers. This calls to mind the natural and primal phenomena of the Australian desert, and provides an entirely deeper resonance. Groups are at their most fragile and problematic; a tendency to insouciance and indifference seems to constantly threaten empathy and connectivity. When the auditorium is suddenly lit, and the audience see themselves in the mirror, the effect is almost accusatory.
This is not to say that Squander and Glory is without its moments of pure aesthetic joy; multiple pas de deux are layered on top of each other, creating a palpable sense of energy and tension but also intense bursts of outright beauty. Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design casts a stunning black/gold wash over the dancers, and Peggy Jackson's magnificent costumes ramp up the sexuality and playfulness.
Musically, all of the pieces excel, under the robust and supple playing of Orchestra Victoria. Hindson’s work for Faster is dazzlingly brilliant, pointillist and exact, and provides much of the acceleration that drives the piece. Max Richter’s work on Infra is a game changer: music that is aggressively contemporary but provides the same texture and drama that the great composers of old brought to what is now considered ballet’s canon.
This triple bill is a perfect introduction to the tradition as well as the projected future of ballet. There is nothing stuffy or staid about the work, but neither is technique or precision sacrificed in the push for relevance. It’s also a great example of canny programming – of the way discrete works can create dialogues with each other, of the way groupings can enhance and enrich our individual ambitions.