Australian Dance Reviews

The Australian Ballet’s ‘Identity’: Celebrating 60 years of culture, community and creative collaboration

Dancers of The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre in Daniel Riley's 'THE HUM'. Photo by Daniel Boud.
Dancers of The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre in Daniel Riley's 'THE HUM'. Photo by Daniel Boud.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney.
2 May 2023.

On 2 May, the Sydney Opera House foyer was buzzing with anticipation for the opening night of Identity. The double bill presented THE HUM by Daniel Riley and Paragon by Alice Topp. These two leading choreographers came together to create a sentimental and memorable world premiere. Celebrating 60 years in the making, the evening was characterised by the company’s pursuit of excellence and dedication to preserving and evolving the art of ballet and commitment of engaging and inspiring audiences through the transformative power of dance.

The Australian Ballet’s identity is rooted in its pursuit to artistic excellence, innovation and a deep respect for classical ballet tradition. Established in 1962, it is regarded as one of the country’s most adored cultural institutions. Widely renowned as one of the world’s leading ballet companies, it continues to present performances which upholds the beauty, athleticism, and emotional power of ballet working with both Australian and international dancers, choreographers, composers and designers to foster a collaborative and vibrant artistic community to create thought-provoking productions.

The evening opened with THE HUM, a work created by Daniel Riley, and never-before-seen collaboration between artists of Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet. Riley, a Wiradjuri man, focussed the piece around the notion of the tangible yet invisible creative unity between the performers, the musicians, spectators and the swell of the land. This value of connection was a strong focal point throughout the process and the performance. For Riley, this piece is a resonance of these collaborators and the individual artist as part of the broader creative ecosystem of shared knowledge, emotion and energy. Riley describes THE HUM as “the songs of the land and the sound of our inhale and exhale.”

THE HUM was a breathtakingly visual masterpiece, with nuances which spoke of ensuing truth and sharing collective vibrations. The work fused new relationships amongst the artists, and showcased a new movement vocabulary which felt deeply conversational. This unity displayed a type of physicality that was grounded in history, whilst simultaneously reframing former choreographic discourse for future artistic exchange. 

The movement of the ensemble was mesmerising, with circular movements swaying and swelling through different movement planes – rising with the breath in and collapsing with contractions on the breath out. Fluid upper body work was contrasted with grounded, wide and angular leg work and flexed lines. The rise and fall and contractions were visceral, whilst the focus and embodied movement of the dancers formed a connectedness amongst them. Karra Nam portrayed an essence in her work that was deeply honest and powerful. Sebastian Geilings, too, was captivating, drawing the spectators’ attention into an immersive and introspective pool of movement. 

The costume design by First Nations creative Annette Sax (a Taungurung woman from Central Victoria) complimented the work effortlessly and evoked a spiritual link. In contrast to the illuminated outlines of the set design, these pieces were varied and included different silhouettes such as wide flared shirts, vests (inspired by waterfalls) and long flowing pants. I was thrilled to learn about the detail behind these pieces. Sax collaborates with Spacecraft Studio, which specialises in printmaking, and with this, she collected pigments respectfully sourced from traditional lands. Throughout this process, she invited the Australian Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet dancers, along with the wardrobe department, to assist in grinding the pigmentation before they were transferred onto the fabric. Her costume design beautifully portrayed the relationship with Country, and the connections made throughout the creative process. 

Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO, composer of THE HUM, is the first ever Indigenous composer to be commissioned by The Australian Ballet, and her work formed the pulse of the piece, giving it the punctuated breath whilst weaving all aspects of the collaboration into perfect connection. Matthew Adey’s moving set and lighting design portrayed illuminated outlines of Australia’s natural landscapes. The minimalistic approach and contemporary execution, created a sense physical richness and offered a sacred yet subtle energy activation allowing the dancers in contrast to move in a collective space. 

All this combined made THE HUM an exciting contemporary moving work of art. 

The second half of the evening reunited company alumni with current rising talent to present Alice Topp’s Paragon. Celebrating the 60-year journey – the diamond anniversary – of The Australian Ballet, Paragon explored the pursuit of perfection and excellence within ballet over the years. Upon reflection, this piece celebrated the progress and achievements of the company – from humble beginnings and its evolution to the brilliant company it is today. 

A sentimental work, for both the artists involved, long-term ballet lovers and former dancers in the crowd, Topp brought to the stage an “alchemical mix of masters and icons of the past decades and this era’s emerging and adored talent.” Offering the audience a moment to indulge in reminiscence, this piece opened with images seamlessly and slowly projected on an angled transparent curtain – a clever concept by Jon Buswell. Commencing with black and white images, of favourite dancers who formed the company, those idolised only a couple of decades past, to the present stars now adored.

With a cleverly composed score by Christopher Gordon, Paragon was divided into 12 smaller pieces. These included: 1) Sentience, 2) Shimmer, 3) Glow, 4) Embrace, 5) Saudade (the love that remains), 6) Quake, 7) Sehnsucht, 8) Vogue, 9) Spark, 10) Seasons, 11) Lake, 12) Family. Each highlighted passages of time embodying the heart of the company and was complimented by further projections throughout of iconic billboards, tickets, magazine covers and poster images from the past. 

Gracing the stage amongst the company’s emerging dancers were David McAllister AC, Steven Heathcote AM, Lucinda Dunn OAM, Julie da Costa OAM and Fiona Tonkin OAM, to name a few. This was particularly special, and the energy and sentiment was palpable as these were idols and the artists of my day.

‘Glow’ was a floating visual wonder. Bringing back to the stage Lucinda Dunn, Kirsty Martin, Madeleine Eastoe, Jessica Thompson, Sarah Peace, Rachel Rawlins and present artists of The Australian Ballet were dressed in dramatic yet simple golden strapless ball gowns – this piece was the epitome of elegance. Floating around the stage, in effortless form, the grace and artistry of each dancer represented the pursuit of excellence in their own era. A transcendent like moment revisiting the past in the present moment – like a golden thread woven throughout time into the fabric and identity of the company.

Paragon also featured a moment with David McAllister and Steven Heathcote – their enduring artistry spoke volumes of mastery, whilst they danced in and out of carefully crafted choreography. Adam Bull’s stage presence in duets with Fiona Tonkin and Amber Scott was underpinned by the perfect balance of strength, sensitivity and serene form. 

The journey, vibrancy and contrast of Paragon and THE HUM presented by world-class creators and collaborators truly captures the notion of Identity in all aspects and the transformative power of dance.

Identity will be heading to Melbourne, from 16 – 24 June, at State Theatre.

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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