With a lineage stretching back nearly 400 years, ballet is hardly renowned for its avant-gardism. Since its advent in the Italian Renaissance, this form of dance has retained much classicism up until the present day, an air of the esoteric clinging like soil to its aristocratic roots. But on the anniversary of their 50th year, the Australian Ballet are set to challenge such perceptions with Infinity, a series of three new works focused squarely on the artform’s future.
Bringing together some of Australia’s most esteemed choreographers — Graham Murphy (formerly of the Sydney Dance Company), Gideon Obarzanek (formerly of Chunky Move) and Stephen Page of Bangarra Dance Theatre — these innovators will no doubt push ballet’s parameters. The only theme that unites Infinity’s parts is that they are new works, all of which question the way we define ballet in the 21st century.
It is only fitting that Graham Murphy would return to the Australian Ballet for its jubilee celebrations — he began his career as a dancer with the company in 1968, going on to become one of Australia’s most stalwart choreographers. In contrast to the narrative-driven works that he has created of late, Murphy’s contribution The Narrative of Nothing is as abstract as its title would suggest. Using minimalistic sets and costumes, Murphy has discarded the opulence and pomp of classical ballet to emphasise its gestural essence.
“It’s really about the body and the movement, and I guess when that happens you’re so exposed,” says Brooke Lockett, one of the dancers performing in Murphy’s piece. “Costumes and sets and all that kind of lavish stuff can hide a lot, but when that’s all stripped away you really do just see the movement”.
These movements will be set to a score by acclaimed composer Brett Dean (who most recently composed the operatic adaptation of Peter Carey’s Bliss). Co-commissioned by The Australian Ballet, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Dean’s ‘Fire Music’ is dedicated to the victims of Black Saturday. As part of his research, he conducted interviews with a fire scientist from the CSIRO, structuring his composition around the motions and propulsion of fire.
Lockett has worked with Murphy several times in the past, but has found The Narrative of Nothing to be an entirely different experience. “At this point in my career, this is the most definite input as an artist that I’ve been able to have,” explains Lockett. “You have a voice and you feel valued, and every day every individual is growing in the piece in some way… We’re making something really special together and each day it just gets better and better”.
This sentiment is echoed by Benjamin Stuart-Carberry, who will be dancing in Gideon Obarzanek’s There’s Definitely A Prince Involved. Having only been with the Australian Ballet since 2010, Stuart-Carberry has also found it challenging to adapt to Orbarzanek’s choreographic style. “He works very differently to a lot of people who come in and make work on us,” says Stuart-Carberry. “[Gideon] might have some idea, but he’ll really just go with the flow and take a lot from the dancers, whereas a lot of other people will come in with a kind of staid movement vocabulary that they want to put across”.
It has been over 20 years since Obarzanek made a ballet production, his most recent position as Artistic Director of contemporary dance company Chunky Move. (Obarzanek stepped down from the role in 2011.) In preparation for the piece, he asked friends and colleagues what they knew about ballet, which, to his surprise, was not a lot. Most referred to Swan Lake, but Orbarzanek found that each persons’ recollection of the story was vastly different.
“They came up with the themes of love and evil and good kind of thing, so I think he’s taken that and reflected it into our personal lives,” explains Stuart-Carberry. “You often search for this idealised, balletic Hollywood movie moments and experiences, but in real life its much more messy and tangled. I think people are remembering the story of Swan Lake as a bit more real”.
Revising ballet’s traditional narratives is also central to Stephen Page’s Warumuk — in the dark night. Page utilises this European artform to tell an Indigenous story, exploring Aboriginal astronomy and the creation myths that are said to be reflected in the constellations. The piece is based on conversations Page had with Yolngu families last year in Yirrkala, an Aboriginal township North East Arnhem Land.
Dancer Jacob Sofer has found the most difficult task is adapting to Bangarra’s style of movement — a world apart from the pirouettes and pliés of ballet. “It’s a whole new way of moving,” he explains. “It’s very grounded. There’s a lot of squatting on your knees. It’s barefoot which we just don’t do a lot. But it’s a lot of fun.
“We did a few steps the other day that were kind of breakdance, on your shoulder/on your face handstands, that sort of thing. It was a little interesting to see the ballet boys trying to work those out!”
With Infinity’s three works being rehearsed separately, the dancers are anticipating opening night as much as the audience. “We’re like this little family and you’re always such a big part of everything together, but on dress rehearsal and opening night it really will be like going out to watch your friends do a show that you know nothing about,” says Lockett. “I think there’ll be a really lovely, supportive feel”.
BY REBECCA HARKINS-CROSS