What a privilege it was to behold the birth of a star at the Australian Ballet’s opening night performance of their modern dance program “Verve”. It is official, “emerging” choreographer and company dancer Alice Topp burst upon the world stage. There is something special about witnessing the blossoming of an artist whose talent has been patiently nurtured. The audience on Thursday night embraced the magnetism generated by her piece Aurum and leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. Their excitement was unbridled.
The “Verve” program consisted of 3 very modern and different neo-classical ballets. Opening the night was Resident Choreographer Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants to Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Baynes’ work begins with tranquil beauty featuring dancers in highly controlled and sustained lifts. The ballet’s design is an angular set of corner frames but choreographically flows in a linear temperament. The dancing was perfectly executed and reminiscent of ballet’s abstract grace. There is nothing to understand or figure out, merely to experience the ebb and flow of movement. The scene constantly changes from one group of dancers to another with an understated beauty. Contributing to Tchaikovsky’s lush score was solo cello artist Teije Hykema, echoing the dancers’ haunting elegance through his tempered instrument.
Closing the evening’s program was another resident choreographer’s work. Tim Harbour’s “Filigree and Shadow” falls into the opposite end of the spectrum with his ode to aggression and speed. One remarkable aspect was the agility with which the dancers were able to execute his choreography. The moves were angular and quick, gobbled down by the dancers who seem to bite, chew and spit-out the choreography within seconds. The pulsing technological score is 48nord by Ulrich Müller and Siegfried Rössert, was written specifically for Filigree and Shadow in 2015. At times I found the music to be coarse and abrasive, however fitting for Harbour’s theme of “birds surviving a hurricane.” There is an overall masculine drive to Filigree and Shadow with an unforgettable male trio of Brett Chynoweth, Marcus Morelli, and Corps de Ballet stand-out Shaun Andrews. Not to be overlooked were some incredible female dancers who devoured the choreography as readily as the men. Soloist Dana Stephens and Amanda McGuigan showed great attack and strength in their featured moments, and “pocket-rocket” Jill Ogai’s deft athleticism was undeniable. I suspect that casting this piece was not an easy task considering Harbour’s choreography pushes ballet to its limits.
“Verve” was at its best with Alice Topp’s world premiere of Aurum. This marks Topp’s second mainstage piece for the Australian Ballet in its regular season, with previous contributions to their choreographic workshop “Bodytorque”. Last year’s Little Atlas was a program standout and marked the emerging choreographer as “someone to watch”.
Expectations were not only met but exceeded with the ambitious Aurum. Inspired by kintsugi, the Japanese art form of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer, Topp ponders the idea of how to make something that is broken, elegant again in an improved and different state: beauty in the broken. Aurum explores the metaphor for relationships and taps into an emotional spring of love and loss. The piece takes the audience on a powerful journey rich with meaning and emotive artistry. Topp has an ability to choose music that exquisitely elevates her work. Aurum’s musicality feels effortless and natural with the liquidity of each move. Minimalist composer Ludovico Einaudi’s score provides a melodic backdrop building leisurely and thoroughly to an all-engulfing crescendo. Equally supportive are resident Technical Director Jon Buswell’s lighting design and backdrop.
Aurum starts sedate with six couples methodically manipulating each other with intricate partnering. All of the dancers execute the steps with confidence and fluidity, leading up to the first Pas de Deux with Principal Artist Adam Bull and Corps de Ballet dancer Coco Mathieson. Their emotional connectedness was palatable and heartbreaking, as their relationship falls apart and they move on to new partners. It was an unexpected highlight of the piece to watch Bull and Mathieson translate such an intimate scene. Mathieson continued to shine partnering with Coryphées dancer Callum Linnane, sharing a raw and youthful innocence. The second Pas de Deux arrives as prologue to Aurum’s climax. Principal Artists Leanne Stojmenov and Kevin Jackson show the cracks in their relationship with a highly dexterous, unsteady, and successfully faulty dance of two lovers destined to realize the beauty in their imperfection.
It would be amiss not to acknowledge the importance of supporting women choreographers in classical dance. In Australia there are less than five and that is including Topp. It is easy to say that men gravitate to positons of authority and importance and in dance the choreographer is command central. But why, in a field dominated by strong women, are there not more female choreographers? Perhaps the women are too busy being muses, wives or mothers, to have the time to explore a new path. Regardless of the reasons I am hopeful that a ballet company with a female Musical Director and Conductor (also a rarity) in Nicolette Fraillon will continue to encourage young women to explore their creative longings. The investment in Topp and others will surely return ten-fold for the future of the Australian Ballet.
Dance reviewer Paris Wages attended the Opening of the Australian Ballet’s “Verve” on June 21, 2018. The Melbourne season continues at the State Theatre until June 30, 2018 .