The Australian Ballet
Choreography by Wayne McGregor, Stephen Baynes, Jiří Kylián
Arts Centre, Melbourne, June 6 – 14, 2014
From the second definition of the word chroma, freedom from white, comes the entry point to this work of the same name, which affords the dancers of the Australian Ballet a whole new range of brilliant, athletic, hyper-extended movements. A languid wave one moment, convulsing and angular the next, movement and tempo in “Chroma,” choreographed by Wayne McGregor in 2006, appears built on contrast and a reduction of means that allows you to see the whole.
At times the ten dancers appear to swim underwater like serpents released from an abstract painting, suggested by the large rectangular opening in the back wall, only to materialize into crabs with pincers to wound and protect the next, providing, as Wayne McGregor explains, “a graphic sketch or relief from this sense of white.”[i] Just when you think you have decided that the dancers are an abstract painting transferred into human form, testing their legs for the first time in the gallery when the lights are out, the tempo shifts, a trumpet sounds from the orchestra pit, and the dancers draw shapes in the air on their own imaginary canvases. The choreography, a changeable, magnetic beast, sees Lana Jones become a broken marionette finding its centre line, Juliet Burnett, a hummingbird mid-flight, and Andrew Killian and Leanne Stojmenov, a pair of cranes engaged in a courtship dance. Playing with the blank canvas of abstraction, this is choreography digested and re-moulded to form new movements each time. ”The choreography is there and the steps are all the same, but it’s about encouraging the dancers to take it into their bodies and mould it,”[ii] explains “Chroma” restager Antoine Vereecken.
An admirer of John Pawson’s architecture, acclaimed for its simplification of elements to reveal essential form, McGregor thought, “spatially, for a dancer, that it would be really incredible to take away as much of the interference of a normal stage set and have something that’s really, really pure.”[iii] Together with Pawson, they discussed how “to give the dancers a different sense of volume,” and the result is a set in which the body in flux becomes architecture. The outcome, as Pawson wrote, is an “omission of the inessentials.”[iv] We are presented with a softly sculpted, inviting set “closed on three sides except for a large aperture on the back wall, the dancers’ only entry and exit.”[v] The set, in accord with the dancers’ energy, changes guise under Lucy Carter’s lighting. The landscape to traverse is as vast and diverse as the range of movements, and tied to this exploration of the human body is sound: glorious, loud, and expressive sound to shake in the body when contained.
The disconcerting nature of Joby Talbot’s Hovercraft (2005) appealed to McGregor, and the question of how to extend a soundscape five-minutes in length arose. The resulting score draws on four Talbot compositions and three songs by the White Stripes arranged by Talbot, enabling the work to swing “from menacing to meditative”[vi] in a heart beat or a leg extension. Eating its way into the fabric of the State Theatre, the White Stripes’ “Aluminium,” “Hardest Button to Button,” and “Blue Orchid” provide the necessary conflict (and something for the toe to tap along to) as bodies communicate using an unfamiliar vocabulary, their limbs punctuating the space. Brett Chynoweth, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and Andrew Killian, moving as a trio that leaps from harmony to discord and back again, bring a sense of the much needed rock posturing and androgyny as they strut and flex and impress in pastel slips. The uniform costuming by Moritz Junge offers a fresh take on the pastel spectrum, with each dancer slipped inside a tube of colour to compliment their unique skin tone, and, above all, offer a full range of uninhibited movement. In costuming worn as a fluid extension of the body, there is a sense of ownership of space and body provided. It is something akin to the thrill of stomping down the street, earphones in, lost in your own private soundscape, surveying ‘your’ stage, a sensation mirrored in the confidence of Daniel Gaudiello and Vivienne Wong. And if “Chroma” is a mixed tape for the senses that plays loud and quick, its quieter, romantic underbelly is briefly exposed in a tender pas de deux performed by Adam Bull and Amber Scott.
From “Chroma’s” electric world, we are plunged into a velvety black landscape. Overhead, a fragment of an archway hovers and provides a visual anchor. Diffused light attempts to penetrate the darkness and creates a sense of being in the hushed confines of a cathedral or a palace. There is the hint of an outside geography, but, as in dream, one cannot be certain. It takes a moment for the eyes to adjust to this dreamscape and for the heart to slow its pace before settling into this new work by resident choreographer Stephen Baynes. “Art to Sky” (2014) is a tribute to both Tchaikovsky and Mozart, and though dark the set, or rather, owing to the darkness of the staging, the impression is one of lightness. Set to Mozartiana, Tchaikovsky’s commemorative piece “to the composer he admired above all others, … these little miniatures for piano”[vii] transport us to a world that is part eighteenth century court signposted by the nineteenth century Romantic era, and tied loosely with ribbon to the present day. Unhooked from narrative’s arc, we are once more at liberty to decipher our own meanings in the piece, should we wish.
Following “Art to Sky’s” somersaults and softly, softly falling steps, the programme concludes with two works by my own champion of truthfulness and humanity, Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort” (1991) and “Sechs Tänze” (1986), which reference his first love: circus acrobats. The symbolic, theatrical Mozart double act takes us full circle, covering “aggression, sexuality, energy, silence, cultivated senselessness and vulnerability.”[viii] Poured into the two works (18 and 15 minutes long, respectively) is the push-pull of emotional affections. As one is dragged or tied by a length of their own skirt, in “Sechs Tänze,” another has their limbs dissected, followed by rapid-fire movements that either quickly assume the position of a corpse or roll into darkness. If one must be garroted, this is how it should be done. There is the familiar slap of a hand against flesh in “Petite Mort,” and the rewarding sexually charged swoosh of a foil cutting through negative space. Six men and six (fencing) foils as willful as if of flesh and bone, six women and six black crinolines on wheels and also seemingly with a mind of their own, and one cloud of floating black fabric, we see outlines traced by foil’s tip and shapes from nature drawn when one body partners with another. All is held in perfect balance, and it wears the fine corseting of Joke Visser. Though five years separate these two works, bookended they read as one exploration that swings, or in the case of the black crinolines, wheels from the poetic to the physical. As with “Chroma,” the dancers once more seem to relish the freedom and gave to their roles something, if not all, of themselves. Space is again transformed to strong effect but with great and considered simplicity. For simplicity without considered absence is merely spartan.
You need to know the right things to reduce, just like in a drawing, or painting, or architectural design. Dress-ups, various posturing, human connections and contortions, and notions of the self are all explored; replete, in the case of the slap-tickle titillation of “Sechs Tänze,” with well-staged fake stabbings and mime. From the White Stripes to a short and fast ride in a Mozart whirligig, there are elements of play (and foreplay) in the works by all three choreographers. Hands tickle and peep suggestively through the legs of another. Hands can serve as feet, and to get from A to B, why not a simple roll to take you back to primary school days? Dancers emulate an Egyptian frieze before it all ends in a flutter of bubbles—or does it?
[i] Wayne McGregor and Jody Talbot in interview, “Wayne McGregor and Joby Talbot on ‘Chroma,’” Royal Opera House film, 2007.
[ii] Andrew Taylor, “Chroma: Ballerinas can rock out to The White Stripes too,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 26, 2014.
[iii] Wayne McGregor, Royal Opera House film.
[iv] John Pawson cited in “Choreographer’s Notes,” in the Australian Ballet’s Chroma and Imperial Suite programme (Melbourne: The Australian Ballet, 2014), 5.
[v] Lee Cristofis, “Wayne McGregor: Plugged In,” in Chroma and Imperial Suite programme, 7.
[vi] Mark Carroll, “Music Note,” in Chroma and Imperial Suite programme, 15.
[vii] Stephen Baynes, “Choreographer’s Notes,”in Chroma and Imperial Suitet programme, 5.
[viii] Jiří Kylián, “Choreographer’s Notes,” in Chroma and Imperial Suite programme, 5