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4 December 2008

Interplay ballets by Mills, Brophy & Edwards

Sydney // NSW // 12.11.2008

Illustration for the interplay.com.au website Image: Illustration for the interplay.com.au website  
© Tin & Ed

Ballet enthusiasts are inclined to argue at times about the function and value of the two main components of the art form. Does the music drive the dancing? Or is the dancing there to give shape to the music? It is natural, even inevitable, for musicians and dancers to prioritise their own contribution. But the driving motivation behind Interplay was to bring the interaction itself to the fore: the Australian Ballet commissioned three new pieces to become three new ballets, with each choreographer and composer collaborating from the very beginning to bring a true fusion of ideas to the stage, to explore the relationship between music and dance.

This was an ideal which the three ballets on the program approached from different perspectives, and with varying degrees of effectiveness. Coming as it does out of a tradition grounded in mime and tableaux, it is natural for balletic choreography to engage metaphorically rather than directly with musical space and time. This is helpful on some levels, while being problematic on others. Sustaining clearly differentiated levels of expression can be difficult to achieve, particularly in more dramatic moments. There are times when a small number of dancers, no matter how dynamic, will find it difficult to capture the effect of an orchestra in full flight. At other times, the sheer unadulterated physicality of dance gives it a huge advantage in communicating with an audience: not everyone in an audience will appreciate the work that goes into a perfect pirouette, any more than they understand the intricacies of ensemble playing, but the longing to be free and to break away from gravity touches something deep, further than even the most primal aspects of music can easily reach.

Night Path, choreographed by Stephen Baynes to music by Richard Mills, was evocative if somewhat conventional in execution ('pretty, but unremarkable' would be overstating it). The dreamy, breathless quality of the orchestral opening was matched by the limpid, yielding motion of the female dancers as the men – again, rather traditionally – acted primarily as their supports. The small number of dancers helped to focus the music: soloist Madeleine Eastoe languidly rolling in the centre of the stage while movement continued around her and drew attention to the hovering strings and deep pedal points beneath the surface business of the orchestra. The choreography of the second movement was more closely related to the minutiae (especially the more whimsical aspects) of the composition. The third movement saw Mills’s music return to the sonambulent disquiet of the opening, alternating full-blown romance with tired yearning reminiscent of the shimmering unease of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s music, although in some ways the use of harp and celeste are just as conventional in Mills’s contribution as the pas de deux pairings are in Baynes’s.

Semele, composed by Gerard Brophy and choreographed by Matjash Mrozewski, featured a suitably simple, superbly iconographic presentation of the titular myth – the only one of the three ballets to take its structure from a narrative rather than an abstract scenario. Perhaps this external source gave both composer and choreographer a focus for their energies; at any rate, the interweaving of the music and dance were at their most natural and most effective in this ballet. The faintly dissonant intervals emanating from the orchestra, combined with the deliberately archaic combination of double reeds and stopped horns, gave the introduction an exotic air of far-off and long-ago.

The angular, quasi-two dimensional opening attitude assumed by Juno and Jupiter (Danielle Rowe and Robert Curran) followed through to the linear precision of their dancing. This was equally appropriate to the classical Grecian theme (the choreography was reminiscent of classical friezes, in the manner of Nijinski’s interpretation of the L’Apres-midi d’un faune) and the static expectancy of Brophy’s music. These in turn were befitting to the essentialist philosophy espoused by modern dance and music alike: no longer is it necessary to mime every plot point or allot every character a motif of their own – the story is reduced to its essence, leaving composers, choreographers, performers and audience all free to read what they will into it.

The Olympians’ careful detachment was clearly distinguished from Semele (Juliet Burnett), who was freely sensual even down to her tangling hair. Her uninhibited twists and turns were matched by increased adrenalin in the music as the pitch range broadened and both tempo and volume increased. Jupiter and Semele’s pas de deux returned to the use of double reeds and flute, but in an arabesque style more consciously sensuous and befitting the flowing lines of the choreography.

Adam Gardnir’s inspired costume and set design were highlighted by the romantic sweeps of sound drawing attention to the fatal fascination of the cloaked fan (the signifier of Jupiter’s divinity) hovering portentously over the stage. Even the eventual ignition of the flames that brought Semele’s demise (that same fiery robe wafted on a fan-driven breeze) was so slow and so sensual, and embraced by Semele so willingly, that her death was more consummation than conflagration. The music likewise built on harmonic richness and lusciousness of orchestration rather than courting violence even as Semele finally slipped to the floor – 'burned to a crisp' as Mrozewski put it.

Just like its name, The Possibility Space (choreographed by Nicolo Fonte to music by Ross Edwards) seems to run on potential energy. The dancers are primed and poised for motion that never quite takes hold as they prepare for turns unturned, and leaps unleaped. Even the final positions were off balance, inferring further movement after the curtain closed. This was well suited to the struggle in Edwards’s music between suspended pedal points and rhythmic agitation. The dancers, although not always moving in ways that were directly descriptive of the music, alternated the kinetic with the frenetic, their electric blue costumes matching the bright flashes of sound typical of Edwards’s composition.

In the most overtly 'modern' choreography of the night, the angularity of the dancers’ positioning suited the brittle, tangy dissonance of the music; their movement was inflected by traditional classical positions, exaggerating them and pushing them further in ways that highlighted their discomfort and awkwardness. The characteristic Edwards energy emerged in the third movement, with the dancers matching the orchestra point for point on angularity, vitality, repetition, and playfulness – playing with the limited space of the opera theatre stage just as Edwards plays with limited motivic material.

Event details

The Australian Ballet; The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, NSW
Wednesday 12 November

Night Path
Choreography Stephen Baynes
Music Richard Mills
Set and costume design Michael Pearce
Lighting design Jon Buswell

Choreography Matjash Mrozewski
Music Gerard Brophy
Set and costume design Adam Gardnir
Lighting design Brad Fields

The Possibility Space
Choreography Nicolo Fonte
Music Ross Edwards
Set and costume design Marcus Pysall
Lighting design Brad Fields

Further links

Subjects discussed by this article:

Angharad Davis is currently completing a Master's degree in musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, studying connections between memory and the perception of musical collage. She is associated with a number of musical organisations as a teacher, performer, and a writer of program notes.


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