Sydney Opera House, April 12
The key work in The Australian Ballet’s Faster triple bill was supposed to be Wayne McGregor’s new Multiverse, which premiered at the Royal Ballet in November to largely disobliging reviews. A change in programming quickly ensued. Multiverse was out, Infra (2008) was in. It wasn’t unreasonable to program Multiverse sight unseen and assume it would work for the Australian company and audience, as the choreographer made Dyad 1929 for TAB in 2009 and Chroma came into the repertoire in 2014.
The less than ecstatic reception for Multiverse may have given TAB and/or McGregor pause for thought, or more practical considerations could have come into play. It may be that Rashid Rana and Murtaza Ali’s set could have fitted reasonably well on to the State Theatre stage in Melbourne but ultimately wasn’t suitable for the relatively small Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, which is the Faster program’s second port of call. Multiverse photographs show a vast box with a dense grid pattern on which photographs and sections of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa were projected for the second half of the piece.
As it happens, even the austere Infra looks somewhat circumscribed on the Joan Sutherland stage but what can you do? TAB is resident at the Opera House and that’s that. And while Infra isn’t seen to greatest advantage, without it this mixed bill would be a thin affair.
The evening starts with David Bintley’s Faster, to Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s suitably muscular and energetic commissioned score. It was the Birmingham Royal Ballet artistic director’s way of getting into the spirit of the London Olympics in 2012, which is where it should have stayed. Sydney audiences may recall Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, which appeared during the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, never to be seen again. If memory serves I liked Personal Best a lot more than Faster, although that’s not necessarily saying much.
Faster obviously and tediously draws on shapes from various sports, grouping their exponents under headings such as Throwers, Aerials and Synchro. Among the Throwers, principal artist Chengwu Guo stood out on Wednesday night for his exuberance – a cracking 540; a high-flying backwards aerial somersault – and for a costume that made him look as if some light S&M awaited him in the athletes’ village (Becs Andrews designed). An over-extended pas de deux of competitiveness, injury and recovery is Faster’s centrepiece and pulls the piece out of shape, and the tone wavers between send-up and seriousness. The final section, where a big group does some fancy running on the spot, is the highlight for more reasons than one. If Faster had gone on any longer I might have been tempted to do a runner myself.
Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory is, one gathers, about the build-up of energy and its inevitable release. There is reference in the program note to Georges Bataille’s essay The Accursed Share and the theories that inspired Harbour but if you hadn’t read the program you’d be none the wiser. It looks good, certainly, as 14 excellent dancers make forceful, attractive stage pictures against Kelvin Ho’s mirror backdrop. The look is big-city glamour with a hard edge, momentarily spoiled when the house lights go up and an easily distracted audience sees itself in the mirror. Presumably Harbour has a point, but it’s not clear. Michael Gordon’s hard-driving Weather One (1997) was a good choice of score though.
Infra came as balm after Faster and Squander and Glory. Infra is mysterious and yet utterly clear in its purpose. On one level we are anonymous dots in big societies where people brush past one another on their way to somewhere else. But we’re also desperate for connection and understanding. Underneath an LED screen (British artist Julian Opie’s work), showing electronic figures ceaselessly walking to who knows where, six couples enact a rich world of thoughts, fears and desires to the deeply supportive music of Max Richter. McGregor’s well-known language of ultra-stretched, bent and torqued physicality is here exceptionally moving; a visual correlation of things we find so difficult to say.
There was a great deal of ravishing dancing from the cast I saw, although no one entirely realised all the work’s potential. In Wednesday’s cast, principal artist Robyn Hendricks and soloist Dimity Azoury came closest. It’s got to do with going to the uttermost extremes of McGregor’s movement without making it look mechanical and imbuing it with passionate, expressive intensity. Otherwise the work can look a little too careful and thus less affecting. It is fair to say, too, that the small stage doesn’t help. At one point the six couples are seen together on the stage but in separate rectangles of light. Here they are simply too close together. Infra needs room to breathe.
So thank goodness for Infra. There would have been nothing to speak to the heart otherwise. There was, however, plenty for the ear. The Faster program gives the orchestra a rest from the heavy diet of conventional classics it usually has to provide for the ballet. The Opera Australia Orchestra (formerly the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra) was conducted by TAB’s music director and chief conductor Nicolette Fraillon for the Hindson and Gordon scores while TAB assistant conductor Simon Thew was at the helm for the Richter. The assertiveness of Hindson’s and Gordon’s music gives a superficial impression of sameness but they reach their effects very differently. I’d like to hear them again.
That said, there wasn’t, overall ,the level of contrast that can make a triple bill as stimulating as it should be. Getting the mix right is a delicate art, which is why artistic directors fall on anniversaries with glad cries. Last year the Royal Ballet put on a triple bill to celebrate Wayne McGregor’s 10 years as resident choreographer. In its next season are mixed bills marking the 25th anniversary of Kenneth MacMillan’s death. There will also be a program whose theme is the music of Leonard Bernstein, staged to acknowledge the centenary of his birth. You could also point to another theme: the perennial one of the male choreographer. Bernstein will be honoured with works by McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett. And then there’s the program of three RB resident choreographers: McGregor, MacMillan and Frederick Ashton.
Looking back through old TAB programs I am reminded of choices that put a spotlight on Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, the Ballets Russes, and repertoire as diverse as Stephen Baynes’s Beyond Bach, MacMillan’s Las Hermanas and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (in 1996) and Kylián’s Sinfonietta, Balanchine’s Apollo and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1997). I am reminded too, of many a new work that has not and never will again see the light of day, but you have to take those risks.
In recent years the Vitesse program (Kylián’s Forgotten Land, In the Middle and Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse) hit the mark, as did 20:21 (Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow and Upper Room).
So it can be done. Just not every time, as Faster proves.
Faster ends in Sydney on April 26.