Victoria is home to some of this country’s most distinct and exciting professional dance companies including The Australian Ballet, Chunky Move and Transit Dance.
Since forming almost a decade ago in 2007, the Melbourne Ballet Company (or MBC) has gained a strong following, offering work which is original, thoughtful and ground – breaking.
This season, the MBC presents a trio of brand new pieces. Titled ‘Intention and Desire’, this trilogy is themed around Pablo Picasso’s iconic painting, ‘Guernica’. (Commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government in 1937, the mural – sized canvas was composed to highlight German and Italian war planes bombing the small country village in Northern Spain.)
According to the MBC production notes, Part One, ‘Veil of Maya’ was about the illusion of reality. Whereas Part Two, ‘Empyrean’, is an intellectual light full of love. Part Three will conclude with ‘Guernica’, a story of humanity.
With a running time of ninety minutes, ‘Empyrean’ itself is divided into three extended segments.
What stood out with this overall performance, is that both the male and female artists were given equal time to showcase their individual skills, control, grace and shear physical power. In traditional classical ballet, often the man is used as support or as a backdrop to his female partner. Here however, the dancers were featured solo or in gender – fluid pairs, trios and groups. (The MBC cast for ‘Empyrean’ is represented by ten dancers, with each member owning an impressive training and performance resume.)
Unlike larger performance stages like the State Theatre at the Melbourne Arts Centre or the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda, it should be noted that the Alex Theatre’s venue platform is relatively compact for ballet.
Where the smaller space may potentially limit a dancer’s ability to take advantage of a more expansive working area, choreographically, that did not appear to impede anyone’s freedom of movement. In fact, it was a pleasure to see the MBC team in a more up close and personal setting.
Even more impressive, is that their footwork could rarely if ever be heard on top of the music. Similar to athletes like elite gymnasts, tumblers or figure skaters, such bodily precision takes a tremendous amount of discipline, strength and technical prowess. At all points during the recital, there was a constant, conscious awareness to form and line, the relationship to the music, and to each other. Their work together never looked anything less than effortless.
‘Illuminate’, by guest choreographer, Rani Luther (with music by Philip Glass), dressed the dancers in free – flowing costumes, topped with red and black highlights. Designed by Santha King, these deceptively simple outfits seemed to enhance the dancers’ soft and sensual movements. Potentially the most classically – grounded routine of the three segments, ‘Illuminate’ was also the most liquid.
‘Zealots’, choreographed by Tim Harbour (with music by John Adams), gave the dancers more frenzied, robotic and athletically clockwork elements to execute. Dressed in King’s yellow fluorescent slim-line shorts with zippered tops, this routine seemed to be a nod to such noted choreographers as Britain’s Twyla Tharp and America’s Mark Morris Dance Group.
As the MBC production notes point out, “(‘Zealots’) title comes from observing the dancers during (company) rehearsals. Dancing together, they forget everything except each other, the design of the steps, and a shared organization of time. Zealotry – fanatical commitment and belief – this describes them and their relationship to the movement.’
The final section, ‘Lucidity’, was also the most ambitious, incorporating spiritual, intellectual and theatrical elements rarely seen in contemporary dance. A new media experience of sorts, it was a tremendous pleasure to see the dancers become at one with the musical backing. In this piece, they also worked in perfect time with an extended sequence of animated rear projection.
Again, King dressed the dancers in form – fitting shades of shear grey and black. For aficionados of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, her choices almost brought the painting itself to life. An extended segment between two of the male dancers, potentially highlighted the relationship between love versus war as well.
For this section, MBC company director, Simon Hoy, contributed the choreography, with music by Olafur Arnalds and Max Richter.
Direction for ‘Empyrean’ was shared by both Alisa Finney and Simon Hoy, with expert lighting design created by Craig Boyes.
‘Empyrean’ played for two nights at the Alex Theatre in St. Kilda. The third and final part in the sequence, ‘Guernica’, will premiere in July at the Hawthorn Arts Centre.