I read ballet through the prism of art, my background training. And it is by holding this prism before your eyes that I will take you with me, beginning with George Balanchine.
As a child, before the National Gallery of Victoria was renovated, I recall visiting the upstairs gallery that housed glassware and other breakables from history. I remember walking through this section with my dad quickly but assuredly, for the cabinets shook a little and this gave rise to the terrible fear that the contents within would teeter and fall. Perhaps I imagined this owing to the fragility of the contents held within. Nevertheless, this was a space, though beautiful a display, that we passed through en route to the main attraction. I recall walking behind my dad, shorter legs following longer legs, guided by his trailing knitted scarf. Through the delicate forest of china, silverware, and other fine curiosities we passed, the sound of our tread on the floor. This sensation sums up how I have felt about Balanchine. The precision so perfect, the choreography so otherworldly, yet for all its brilliance, something held me at a distance. I have viewed his work on the periphery. I have viewed his work as though behind glass. Look, but don’t touch. Admire, but don’t intrude. Be in awe, but don’t gape. But all this was mere uninformed preconception. A collection of thoughts based on never having seen one of his 425 works performed live. A fallacy, it turns out. And this for me speaks of the beauty of live performance and shall remain testament to always keep an open mind.
Yes, there is a certain intended coolness and irresistible chicness to “The Four Temperaments” but what strikes me first is that famous off-centre tilt, the pelvis thrust forward, the flexed feet, and the placement of each part of the body in such a way as to render it both perfect and odd. All is on display in pared-back costumes, the simplicity of which allows us to see the whole. How the whole of a leg rotates enabled by the supporting leg and strength of the upper body. How everything is connected in more than a mechanical thigh-bone-is-connected-to-hip-bone sense. Rather, how movement is weighted to the floor even in elevation, as though some giant magnet below stage were held in place. Perhaps even Balanchine himself, wielding said giant magnet, such is his legacy. This simplification of costuming and narrative too, for the four different temperaments or humours—melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmetic, and choleric—serve as an idea from which to leap as opposed to a tale to communicate, show me that this ballet is one closer linked to painting and drawing than I had realised. An artist’s reduction of means on the canvas or parchment enables clarity of vision. Simplify the palette, better see the subject. Limit the means, see clearly the form. This is now what Balanchine has become to me, and I am drawn in, pulled closer.
A link to collage and assemblage as well can be seen in Balanchine’s loves and influences. “The Four Temperaments,” particularly on second viewing, tips hat to Josephine Baker, my own childhood idol Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, and Lindy Hop dancers. As Eve Lawson, who has danced in Phlegmatic and is now ballet mistress and repetiteur with the Australian Ballet, discusses, ‘when he made “The Four Temperaments” he had just worked with Gershwin in Hollywood, and certainly he was always aware of current popular culture. In the exit of the third theme, where the man lifts the woman up and she has to raise her legs up, parallel to the floor and he walks off with her, holding her under her shoulders, that could have come straight from the Lindy Hop.’[i] Speaking straight to my collage heart, she continues: ‘Balanchine loved to think of himself as a gardener or a chef: he’d say “God creates, I assemble.” He was always looking for just the right ingredients to put together to make the perfect meal.’ The ultimate assemblage artist. A collage of moving parts!
With a score by Paul Hindemith, recalling its ‘rolling arpeggiated piano motifs, and the strings soaring smoothly (strongly, insistently) above’[ii], my introduction to Balanchine, a name synonymous with minimalism, seen on opening night and again a handful of days later on the Tuesday, gave me one beautiful performance that has forever altered my view and (growing) understanding. Two casts, slightly different, equally inspiring, the first third (of this triple bill) leaves the audience as it should: wanting more, but sated for now.
Through the prism of art continues my experience of Jiří Kylián’s “Bella Figura” with its curtains employed as black paper to conceal and other times reveal. Once more, I find I am holding my breath from beginning until end, save for four sharp intakes that I am aware of. With one hand it reaches into your chest cavity and holds your heart whilst the other it places around your throat. It is no surprise that this follows on perfectly from the Balanchine, a triple bill is a collage too, juxtaposing, complimenting, and making a new reading possible.
“Bella Figura,”for its rawness, directness, and intimacy, is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. A black curtain envelopes a dancer, folding its giant fabric arms about her before letting her loose. Hands hold faces, both own and others. Bodies ripple and convulse as if for one moment not bodily organs within but perhaps a flow of water or jelly spill. There is the loud crack of a thigh being slapped. The distinct and familiar sound of a hand clapping, of feet as they land, of bodies as they fall to the floor. A curtain that trails after two dancers as they move across the stage, becoming a character in itself. There is a dancer who walks alongside another who has transformed into a graceful stalking cheetah (or perhaps a gazelle) before the roles are reversed. The human guide privileged to walk alongside such a creature as opposed to the more familiar scenario of a master walking a hound. A black curtain, that repeating motif, falls but part way, and a row of dancers in enchanting wide-hipped red skirts now hold it in place, hold it from falling; wearing it, taking comfort in it, employing it as shield, becoming it, before stepping forward a trio and the curtain falls silently to stage floor. One arm moves, the other controls it. This liminal place, between dream state and waking. With dancers on the stage warming up before performance even begins—when did it even begin? The intimacy of two red-skirted dancers disrobing for but a moment in the small square of curtain’s frame. The delicate intimacy of a body recoiling then yielding. Two figures moving as one in fluid suspension. As one arcs forward the other follows or mirrors, and this in final duets of the differing pairs that form is something repeated. A leg that swings for briefest of moment is like a pendulum; your time here soon up.
The score pieces together extracts from Giovanni Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Giuseppe Torelli’s Concerti Grossi Op. 8 No 6, the Salomon Rossi Suite by Lukas Foss, Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Mandolins, and Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto in D Minor transcribed by JS Bach, and is performed by Orchestra Victoria with four guest singers: Russell Harcourt, countertenor; Jacqueline Porter, soprano; Janet Todd, soprano; Margaret Trubiano, mezzo soprano. Movement repeats the sensation created by the haunting score. Or is it the other way around? As a former dancer with the Australian Ballet, Jane Casson conveys: ‘every single moment brings the music alive. All the notes are brought together into live movement and suddenly the music makes perfect sense.’[iii]
On opening night, when in those last minutes the music fades and two dancers remain in a final pas de deux, there are only the small sounds of their breathing, their feet, the flicker of flame in the cavernous space, and the soundlessness of an audience collectively holding its breath (I think. I can’t remember. To me, there was no one else in the theatre. I forgot them.) before dancers depart and we awake to house lights, conscious of our own heavy limbs. The quiet tragedy of being permitted to soar immortal on the stage before awaking in own skin is perhaps the price of the out-of-body experience. Dance carries us to some undefined place; it transports us all.
Wayne McGregor’s “Dyad 1929” takes us somewhere else again, and it is abstraction for own sake; its subject is what you see in the colors (black, white, with yellow in tonal gradation from flesh to sunflower), shapes, and strokes. I first saw the company perform this work in 2009. Now I see something else. My eyes are different. I’ve long thought that it is not the world that gets crueler (or faster), but our eyes that grow older (and slower). For me, the sorrow we see around us speaks of the age of our eyes and this is not linked to actual years lived, of course, but experience, things seen, and felt. Wide-eyed hope, to me, at least, seems hardest to hold onto unknowingly, but then again perhaps the temperament I closest resemble is Melancholic. There is an underlying sadness to this energetic piece that I cannot quite put my finger on. Steve Reich’s Double Sextet offers a new freedom of movement, and for me, with familiarity, I grow fonder and fonder of it, perhaps none more so as in the second movement, which as Nicolette Fraillon, music director and chief conductor, explains ‘provides room for the dancers to develop and express their own individuality, and I love giving them that room. In the context of ballet, this gives a little breathe and space.’[iv]
‘How is it that you get what you want from a body? One of the ways is to give it like some kind of vocalisation. Vocalisation is suggestive, evocative of a particular feeling of movement. I think what’s interesting about these dancers is that they have a great kind of technical proficiency, also they have a really beautiful way of being able to work with interpretation of music so it’s not all bound, not stiff, not robotic.’[v] And it is this very ‘feeling of movement,’ as described by choreographer Wayne McGregor, that enables us and makes us want to connect, to be drawn in closer to this work where dancers swim like fish under water.
The three ballets that nestle under the mantle, at the forefront of innovation, ring true. So too, the dancers in “Dyad 1929” that become “rubber bands” as explained by soloist Dana Stephensen. ‘That’s what I think of when I walk in the studio; trying to get that elasticity in your body.’[vi] Yes, a rubber band able to resume its normal shape spontaneously after being stretched and compressed. The dancers wear costumes that are direct linked to their Ballet Russes roots. They become a constellation of dots that would please Massine, and echo constructivist Pavel Tchelitchew’s Costume for a Constellation c.1928, for “Ode: Spectacle in three acts.” As McGregor describes, ‘movement is the message’; it is what is communicated; it is what is felt. Abstraction, refraction, (rubber band) snap, “Dyad 1929” is movement both free and controlled. Through the body, boundaries of the medium are explored and in doing so, a tie is bound between the performers on stage and audience. The audience sit engaged, thinking, feeling, consumed, all thoughts focused on the piece, on dance, and music, and what together it makes. This piece is the axe Kafka writes of to the frozen river within us all.
In all three works, the body is revealed. By minimal staging, by absence of narrative, by simplification of costume, but chiefly through each dancer’s execution of choreography, as beautifully exacting as it is challenging. A true celebration of the physical form and how it can move, convulse, be powerful, be languid, be pulled like marionette or swim in defiance of gravity.
[i] Rose Mulready, “Assembling Balanchine,” Vanguard programme (The Australian Ballet: Melbourne, 2013)
[iii] Catherine Lambert, “Music Note,” Vanguard programme, 2013
[iv] Nicolette Fraillon,“Music Note,” Vanguard programme, 2013
[vi] Dana Stephensen, “The Movement is the Message,” Vanguard programme, 2013