The Australian Ballet ‘Identity’. Pic Daniel Boud
The Australian Ballet ‘Identity’ Pic Daniel Boud

The latest double bill by the Australian Ballet is IDENTITY a most exciting combination of two world premieres by two of Australia’s top choreographers that explores the concept of Identity, what it means to be ‘Australian’ and the history of the Australian Ballet.

The first work, THE HUM, choreographed by Wiradjuri man and Australian Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Daniel Riley, (formerly of Bangarra) in a collaboration with the Australian Ballet scrutinises the Indigenous link to Country.

It opened dramatically with the conductor Nicolette Fraillon already on the podium. Yorta Yorta First Nations’ Deborah Cheetham- Fraillon’s lustrous music was sharp and spiky, included clap sticks and Sebastian Geiling had a slippery, sliding, punchy solo to open the work.

The dancers wore costumes by Taungurung fashion designer and educator Annette Sax, with embellishments by Gamilaroi Ularoi artists Priscilla Reid-Loynes and Sarah Loynes, who used natural fibre pigments sourced from traditional lands of Taungurung Badjur (women) to dress the dancers.

Matthew Adeys’ atmospheric set and lighting design was splendid. Before the work started and during the performance there is nebulous computer generated imagery that folds, unfolds and swirls. The lighting shifted from red and orange, white and yellow sections and included the use of reflection, evoking Country, the landscape and weather perhaps, all of which support our human presence. The only props are large black rock like shapes representing the landscape, shifted by the dancers, creating an atmosphere of ponderousness.

At times the nineteen dancers, six from ADT and thirteen from The Australian Ballet,  move as one in in seemingly instinctive patterns and lines of choreography.

The choreography includes rippling arms, high lifts and supported turns. THE HUM considers a debate about European invasion of Australia and also the differences and similarities in style of both ballet and contemporary dance.

After interval was Alice Topp’s PARAGON, commissioned and choreographed for the diamond anniversary.

We see both the past and the possible future of the Australian Ballet. Current members not performing in THE HUM and thirteen of the company’s most beloved and recognisable former dancers return to the stage – including former principal artist of 18 years Madeleine Eastoe, Sarah Pearce and Kirsty Martin, Simon Dow (also formerly of the Stuttgart Ballet and Washington Ballet), Australia’s longest-serving ballerina Lucinda Dunn OAM, former principal artist Fiona Tonkin OAM (who has performed in over 70 ballets with the company), former principal artist of 20 years Steven Heathcote, and the company’s longest-serving artistic director David McAllister AC.

Topp collaborates with designer and long-time associate Jon Buswell, composer Christopher Gordon and costume designer Aleisa Jelbart to bring us this work. Christopher Gordon’s musical score elegantly caught the various moods of the piece whilst Aleisa Jelbart’s costume designs alluded to some past productions but also distinguished between past and present by her use of style and colour.

The work opens with Adam Bull standing like a swathed sculpture, the draping becomes used as a projection screen, where we see brief snippets of film footage from the Ballet’s history as well as still photographs and various production programmes.

PARAGON is divided into twelve sections, at times featuring women in gold ball gowns or lyrical pas de deux in Grecian white or showcasing the men’s spectacular leaps and turns, or pas de deux in rehearsal/studio gear. Some wonderful pas de deux are included as are interweaving lines and patterns of choreography. At one point a man is dramatically lifted and supported in a circle of his colleagues.

Allusions are made choreographically to with brief flashes of past Australian Ballet productions including Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, Stanton Welch’s Divergence and Anne Woolliams ‘traditional’ version of Swan Lake.

Buswell’s moveable set design became a background for the digital projections of the Ballet’s history. In the final section the pieces of the set flipped around, showing the interior of the company’s Melbourne home studios, with an actual barre. The dancers chat, rehearse and hug.

The dancer’s affection for each other and their vocation are caught, and the program pays homage to the Ballet’s durability, roots and achievements.

Running time roughly2 hours 10 mins including an interval

IDENTITY opened at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday May 2 and ran until Saturday May 20, before touring to Arts Centre Melbourne from Friday June 16 until Saturday June 24.

Production photography by Daniel Boud