Two dancers from Bodytorque.Muses | Sydney Theatre

The cleverly-named Bodytorque series, an annual event that steps beyond the Australian Ballet’s home-turf, at the Sydney Opera House, is determined to present the edgy and up-and-coming, billed, deftly, as “a new movement in ballet”.

The theme for this year’s outing is Muses, which, of course, can be as diverse and divergent as chalk and cheese. This reality is borne out palpably in 2011’s programme, which draws on the formative, nascent, evolving choreography of Kevin Jackson, Daniel Gaudiello, Alice Topp, Lisa Wilson and Vivienne Wong, with the order changing according to nightly whim, or some unannounced rhyme or reason.

For opening night, Briswegian prodigy Gaudiello’s ambitious Reader’s Digest version of Tristan and Isolde, a tale he’s long been captivated by and wedded to, hinted at his grander aspiration to stage a full ballet in its honour. With a reduction of a larger-scale score arranged and conducted by Sarah-Grace Williams and performed by the Bodytorque Chamber Ensemble, he’s in sensitive musical hands, to match his sympathetic rendition, set to tunes by Bach, Hoffmeister and Mascagni. A deeply romantic, regal, medievally evocative, artistic (think cherubic fresco) setting is lit beautifully by John Berrett. Gottfried’s unfinished story is, of course, apart from being but one that inspired Wagner, one of the three greatest narrative masterpieces of the German middle ages. Certainly, Gaudiello has managed to pick up on the rhythm of Gottfried’s telling, which was, like all courtly romances, originally delivered in the form of rhyming couplets. He shows off his profound talent for interpreting story ballets, as well as his knack not merely for portraying tragedy, but making us feel it. The work is elegant, dignified and danced superbly by Cameron Hunter, Jarryd Madden and Miwako Kubota, notwithstanding a somewhat shaky start by the last couple. Having said that, to excerpt or precis what only really works as a suite does neither Gaudiello’s obsession not Bodytorque much justice: it doesn’t really fit the format and, indeed, looks as though it’s been shoehorned. It will be interesting to see whether the AB will afford grown-up child-star Gaudiello a proper opportunity to realise his dream of following in the footsteps of Marius Petipa; arguably the most luminous and prolific figure from the golden age of Russian ballet.

Wong’s clumsily-titled Touch Transfer is its only fault. This work stood, for mine, head-and-shoulders above the Topp’s Scope, and Wilson’s Contour, in terms of cohesiveness and clarity of vision. A non-linear piece centred around the notion of brushstrokes and lines, whether they be on canvas, or marked out in dance, its philosophical bent best reflected the concept of the muse, allowing plenty of interpretive freedom which is communicated in the ease of the performers. As if working with a painter’s palette and and accoutrement, Wong sketches her intent and, gradually, fleshes out her subject, fills in the detail, embellishes and adorns. Dimity Azoury, Calvin Hannaford and Jake Mangakahia bring it to life, as does acclaimed classical guitarist Tiago Brissos, who composed and played the marvellous, memorable music. The backdrop, supposedly a “direct graphic imprint of the first half of the dance”, proves something of a gaudy, pretentious distraction and gratuitous, literalistic affectation, but, all-in-all, this is a thoroughly modern (if that word isn’t too passe and old-school to do my meaning justice) dance work, that consummately embodies the idea of muses and which is utterly consistent with the heritage of Bodytorque, if not downright definitive.

Topp started from a good place, meditating on mortality, perception, meaning and time-space. This nebulous musing saw her work open under a canopy of stars. Despite this allusion to universal grandeur, the choreography remains earthy and grounded, albeit becoming a little too complex and disparate, graphically and choreographically, as it wears on. Methinks this one takes on something of a life of its own, running away from its maker’s intention. It initially engaged, then lost me.

Wilson’s Contour never really engaged me in the first place. (The lack of engagement may well have been my failure to engage, than its.) Turning corners, unfolding journeys, personal tragedy, inner pathways, altered perspectives and moving on are centred, visually, around a rather dry notion of mapping that fails to achieve its purpose, which isn’t to say it isn’t executed with great skill by dancers Benjamin Stuart-Carberry, John-Paul Idaszak and Dana Stephenson.

Kevin Jackson’s Encomium certainly arrests, with his bold, unconventional choreography, but in the end, notwithstanding some heartrending moments and movements, it all seems a little try-hard, with more owing to the jerky, disjointed aesthetic of locking and popping than ballet. His coming-of-age, boy-to-man focus is also way too Oedipal for my taste; cloyingly so. I can’t pay as much tribute, therefore, as Jackson sees fit to do for his mum.

When it comes to finding, exploring and revealing her muse, Wong wins the day.

The details: Bodytorque.Muses played five performances at Sydney Theatre.

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