A chance meeting with Christopher Knoblanche, chairman-of-the-board of the Australian Ballet, at interval saw him proudly underscoring just how driven and perfectionistic artistic director David McAllister is, exemplified in the 200-odd performances the company gives each year, substantially more than comparable companies around the globe. As if we needed a reiteration of that statistic to convince us of McAllister’s, or the company’s, commitment to excellence. For the proof is in the pudding.
Icons forms part of the AB’s 50th anniversary celebrations and spans going on 20 years of choreographic eccentricity and individuality, from Robert Helpmann’s The Display from 1964, to Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve from 1980 (and Glen Tetley’s Gemini circa 1973 in between).
Robert Helpmann’s The Display, with music by Malcolm Williamson and a ravishing set and costumes by Sidney Nolan (the original backcloth design has been reinterpreted by Paul Kathner), pertains to the determined efforts of the male lyrebird to seduce a female, though, of course, there’s no reason we should assume its relevance is strictly ornithological. It’s been described as the “first wholly Australian” ballet, whatever that means precisely. One thing’s for sure, it is deeply, unmistakably Australian, beginning with the sound and visual design, which envelops us in the sultry mysteries of the subtropical rainforest. Cockatoo calls ring out around the Opera Theatre, as the orchestra chimes in with Williamson’s immaculately conceived and wrought score, which tracks the ritual with a documentary degree of attention to detail and with profound humour. Lyrebird dancers steal and prance across the stage in their inimitable, surreptitious way. The scene is set.
Helpmann actually made a painstakingly faithful study of the creatures in order to choreograph The Display, which is based on their actual mating dance. His inspiration indicates he may have had too much brie (or bubbly, or both) before bed, as he envisioned Katherine Hepburn naked (a curious diversion to begin with) surrounded by the birds. Bizarre. Mind you, they were touring the country together and Sir Robert was, after all, a man of some colourful and eccentric plumage himself. Ironically, it was Hepburn who introduced Helpmann to lyrebirds, not the other way around as you might expect. The quavery Kate had been obsessed with them since reading a book called The Lure of The Lyrebird and used to insist on sleeping among them, in Sherbrooke Forest, in the Dandenongs; rain, hail or shine, apparently. Two Old Vic Shakespearean actors, camped out; in more ways than one, perhaps. Talk about the odd couple.
Into this quiet, sylvan environment come picnickers: a gaggle of prettily-frocked girls with their baskets; a cabal of young men, swilling beer and kicking around a football. Clearly, their dance isn’t as honed or sophisticated as the lyrebird’s, but has the same design in mind, nonetheless. Sure enough, a pairing-off takes place, but is subverted by the belated appearance of another man, who catches the eye of the already spoken-for female. In keeping with great Aussie traditions, the interloper is subjected to a terrible beating, to within an inch of his life. He takes his revenge on the object of his affections ravaging her and then falling into a pit and fit of unbearable remorse. Suddenly, an idyllic day out turns into a dark night of the soul. To add to the perversity, she still loves him and offers immediate understanding and forgiveness. In the end, she is subsumed by the feathered fan of the peacock.
Regardless, the choreography is extraordinary: it was and remains particularly bold to interpolate Aussie Rules and fighting. Helpmann, I understand, even called upon Ron Barassi and boxer Harry Lister to assist in training the dancers. The current execution is superb. All the soloists excel (Jack Hersee, Andrew Killian and Kevin Jackson) if fulfilling very challenging roles, but it’s Madeleine Eastoe who steals the show, with her waif-like lightness and delicacy. Mind you, the violent loss-of-innocence scene is also a tribute to Jackson.
Must-see is a term bandied too often, but if you hope to have any meaningful historical insight into the heritage of the AB, The Display is absolutely compulsory. Bravo!
Gemini presumably refers to the sets of “twins” present in the work, danced on the night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes. The curtain rises to reveal a curvature of multicoloured slats, dominated by a turquoise palette, reminiscent of rainbow-hued garden benches and Venetian blinds from my childhood. It could’ve been sponsored by Luxaflex. Francis Croese’s lighting is dramatic, creating mesmerising shadows. While the choreography relies on and references classical form, it is, in almost every other respect, contemporary, invigorated and sexually-charged. The couples cavort in ways that seem ambiguous and all the more captivating for it.
After 40 years, Tetley’s heady brew still looks taut, fresh and uncompromising in its unapologetic abstraction and modernity. Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 3 makes for challenging listening at times, but is even more challenging choreographically. Yet Tetley found confident vocabulary completely relative and complementary. There’s a choppiness to it: it’s main intent and success seems to be in emphasising athleticism, the almost limitless mechanical flexibility of the body and a savage sensuality.
There were moments in which both music and movement put me very much in mind of West Side Story: the competitive, combative spirit of the dance, as well as pugnacious vigour of the score. The chairman of the board, enthusing in the conviviality of the Utzon room just after, confessed his special reserve of admiration for Lana Jones. “People think I’ve fallen in love with her,” he opined, to which I rejoined: “It would be hard not to.”
Which isn’t to diminish the resplendence of her colleagues one iota. Gemini almost scandalised audiences both here and overseas (not least in Russia), being the first ballet in which dances wore lycra, revealing a pseudo-nakedness that revealed the architecture of the body; something I believe is key to Tetley’s sculptural ambitions for the work, which has a singleminded aesthetic purity, its stripped-back presentation throwing the impetus onto the dancers, with precious little in the way of imported theatricality.
Murphy’s Beyond Twelve shows just how courageous he is, in its counterpoint between the outrageously comical and the achingly poignant. It is biographical, but not just for Murphy. It’s for every dancer and, indeed, in a very palpable sense, every one of us. It’s, in a sense, a choreographic concerto, plotted in three movements: Beyond Twelve; Beyond Eighteen; Beyond Thirty. It is met by another concerto: Ravel’s, for piano, in G major and featuring a solo by Stuart Macklin.
The first movement charts a boy’s transformation from veritable caterpillar to butterfly: footy hero to ballet acolyte. Well, after all, both have an aerial physicality. The scenario painted around football culture is deliciously funny, with no small credit due to the coyly pigeon-toed Sister (Eloise Fryer), Mother (Matthew Donnelly) and Father (Frank Leo). The second movement sees said boy transmute to manhood, assiduously following his dream, but ensnared, too, by a diverting, young woman. Finally, the young man is no longer quite so young and must grapple with all the issues that correspond with maturity. These three ages of man are movingly portrayed in a trio, in which Brett Chynoweth, Cam Hunter and Andrew Killian become entwined.
Beyond Twelve is, as much as anything, heartwarming entertainment, but rarely is entertainment imbued with such harmony, emotional range, depth or artistry.
Icons revivifies classic works from the past. While there may be certain aspects which tie them to their temporal origins, for the most part they exceed status as mere curiosities, or stops along the way on a trip down Nostalgia Street. These are the fruits of the labours of our best and brightest: crazy diamonds that shine on. And on. And on.
The details: Icons plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 26. Tickets on the company website.