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The Australian Ballet push the limits of their craft with this triple bill of short contemporary ballet works by modern masters
The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill of contemporary works is, as the title suggests, all about speed:the speed at which the coast is eroded; the speed of moving bodies; the speed of a train as it burns past.
The night opens with Jirí Kylián’s lamentful 1984 piece ‘Forgotten Land’, danced to Benjamin Britten’s plaintive Sinfonia da Requiem. Twelve figures, backs to the audience, recede towards the horizon, all but blown over by baying, bitter winds.
Completed in 1940 as the Nazis began their cataclysmic expansion in Europe, Britten’s score summons a sense of looming disaster. Inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Dance of Life’ and Britten’s home ground of East Anglia, Kylián wanted in part to evoke an English shoreline being overtaken by the sea, inch by inch.
As if to channel an evaporating world, the women wear folksy long dresses in reds and blacks that hug their bodies and flare outwards as they move, making them appear like fluid, flowing liquid. Meanwhile, the male performers’ slacks and shirts are masculine and rustic. Moving together, they are both dignified and grief-stricken, as they crouch down or are pushed over by unseen forces. It is a shame, then, that the impact is lessened by some opening night shakes.
By contrast with ‘Forgotten Land’, the abrupt start of William Forsythe’s ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ – with its booming electronic beats, courtesy of Thom Willems – seems even more violent. If the former is about erosion and dissolution, the latter is about movement, punctuated by moments of cool, casual composure.
Created in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet –and then-nascent superstar Sylvie Guillem – ‘In the Middle’ was credited with helping to transform the ballet tradition. Forsythe used classical techniques in a brash, unapologetic, modern setting, testing the body to the extreme, while rejecting narrative storytelling.
On a stage completely bare aside from a pair of small golden cherries dangling from the ceiling, nine men and women lounge around what could be a rehearsal studio. Sporting skin-tight backless green leotards they prowl nonchalantly, stretch, and watch, assessing. Then, suddenly, someone breaks into dance. It’s sexy, bold, addictive and –in fabulous 1980s fashion – utterly showy.
Ending the night is Christopher Wheeldon’s 2006 commission for the Royal Ballet, ‘DVG: Danse à Grande Vitesse’, in its Australian premiere. Translating as literally a “dance at great speed” the ballet starts with performers chugging in the background, popping up and down like a steam-train. The score they jig to is Michael Nyman’s ‘MGV: Musique à Grande Vitesse’, written to mark the inauguration of France’s latest transport line, the TGV high-speed train, in 1993.
The music is buoyant, assertive and fun and the choreography reflects its optimism. Four memorable pas de deux are contrasted with larger set pieces against a stage of curving steel designed by Jean-Marc Puissant. These massive sheets evoke industrialisation, a great frozen tide and, to me at least, an ice rink. Dancers, too, come and go in waves as the score troughs and swells around them. The banging of live drums only adds to the feeling of a ballet hurtling brilliantly towards its final destination.