30/06/2021 - 14:00

ARTS REVIEW - STATE ballet triple bill is spell-binding

30/06/2021 - 14:00

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Each of the three works in West Australian Ballet’s inaugural ‘STATE’ program won over the opening night audience, writes Nina Levy.

Julio Blanes and Matthew Lehmann in Graeme Murphy’s ‘Air and Other Invisible Forces’. Photo: Bradbury Photography

In one sense it’s easy to understand why West Australian Ballet Artistic Director Aurélien Scannella has chosen to headline the company’s inaugural “STATE” triple bill with a work by Graeme Murphy.

The new season, which will see the company leave the grandeur of His Majesty’s Theatre once a year to perform at WA’s sleek State Theatre Centre, is a showcase of contemporary dance. Murphy, a lauded choreographer and former director of Sydney Dance Company, is contemporary dance royalty.

But given that this triple bill is predicated on the idea of newness, Murphy’s Air and Other Invisible Forces is a surprising curatorial choice. Glorious as it is, it’s over 20 years old. It’s not even entirely new to WAB audiences – we saw an excerpt from the work at 2020’s “Light and Shadow: Ballet at the Quarry” season.

In contrast, the program’s two shorter works – Slow Haunt by Australian/Javanese choreographer Melanie Lane, and Gainsbourg, by WAB dancer Adam Alzaim – are both premieres and as such feel more fitting in the line-up.

Programmed in order of choreographic seniority, Alzaim’s Gainsbourg leads the charge. Set to the seductive sounds of 20th century Parisian singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, this work is populated 12 party goers who navigate an evening of flirtations, face-offs and wine-fuelled fun.

At once slinky and precise, Gainsbourg pays homage to Fosse, with its exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, and hilariously limp wrists. Smoothly coiffed and attired in slick spotted suits (designed by Alzaim), the dancers are androgynous, their sartorial crispness matched by the choreography, and by Damien Cooper’s sleek vertical tube lights, which morph from hazy street-light yellow, to late-night lounge red, to ultra violet.

The opening night cast gave a delightfully decadent performance of this frothy work, with Juan Carlos Osma’s coolly executed cigarette solo a highlight.

Scannella’s decision to commission a new work from award-winning contemporary dance artist Melanie Lane excited me because – as Lane notes – independent contemporary dance artists rarely have the opportunity to work with ballet companies.

The result, Slow Haunt, demonstrates that bringing these two worlds together opens up new vistas for 21st century ballet.

A reimagining of the ghostly figures of Romantic ballet, Slow Haunt opens with a luminous mist, from which eight black-shrouded figures emerge. Their unitards (designed by Akira Isogawa) are adorned with designs that are monstrously, meatily anatomical.

Unlike Romantic ballet’s ethereal sylphs, these creatures slither, strut and judder through an underworld of shadows. As the tempo of Christopher Clark’s electronic score increases, the dancers respond with pas de deux in which limbs wrap inexorably around one another. They run towards us and freeze, wide-eyed and quivering.

The work feels apt for our times; the darkness and smoke reminiscent of scenes from 2020’s bushfires. Though occasionally their movement could have had an earthier quality, the opening night cast were compelling as they slithered their way through Lane’s underworld.

Murphy’s Air and Other Invisible Forces is also stylistically challenging for the WAB dancers. Again, in the main, the company meets these challenges, although there were moments when partnering work felt less than secure on opening night.

Choreographed to Mourned by the Wind, liturgy for viola and orchestra, by 20th century Georgian composer Gija Kancheli, Air and Other Invisible Forces is infused with the minor key poignancy of its score.

Unlike the Quarry season of Air, this rendition (staged by Bradley Chatfield and Catherine Goss) includes designer Gerard Manion’s set. Its sculpted metal branches frame the stage and throw tangled shadows onto the massive fabric sail that is as much a part of the choreography, in some sections of the work, as the dancers.

The shapes of the sculptures echo the seaweed like waftings of the opening clump of dancers, aquatic in their translucent green tunics (also designed by Isogawa). They cluster around a central figure (Candice Adea) who beckons the audience into a world of whispers and shadows.

On opening night the acrobatic first pas de deux, with its impressive capture of the female dancer mid-grande jete, was performed with panache by Nomura and Ludovico Di Ubaldo, both of whom continued to impress throughout the work.

Julio Blanes, too, gave a poised and athletic performance, both as a soloist and in partnership with the always engaging Matthew Lehmann.

Though there isn’t an obvious thematic through-line to the “STATE” program, each work wove its own spell on the opening night audience, who responded with resounding enthusiasm.

There is no doubting the value of remounting successful established contemporary works such as Air and Other Invisible Forces. It is my hope, however, that “STATE” will be a platform that prioritises younger works alongside new commissions, and an opportunity for some of WA’s many talented independent contemporary choreographers to flex their creative muscles with the dancers of our state’s flagship ballet company.

“STATE” performances between Tuesday, June 29 and Friday, July 2 have been cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Saturday, July 3 performances are pending further state government announcements.

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