Instruments of Dance, The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 10, 2022

Australian audiences know Wayne McGregor from Dyad 1929, made in 2009 as part of The Australian Ballet’s Ballets Russes celebration; Chroma, choreographed in 2006 and brought into the repertoire in 2014; and Infra, staged by TAB in 2017 but dating from 2008. Obsidian Tear, the opening work in the Instruments of Dance triple bill, is not that Wayne McGregor. Absent is the cool, cerebral, ultra-controlled elegance of McGregor’s extreme articulations for bodies that may have well come from another planet. Obsidian Tear (made in 2016 for The Royal Ballet) is an altogether more human affair – passionate, sweaty, sometimes messy and with layers of association ranging from myth to urban violence to male pack behaviour to gay hate crimes. The deliberately ambiguous title refers to sorrow and anger, both very much present.

Adam Bull, Adam Elmes and Callum Linnane in Obsidian Tear. Photo by Jeff Busby

Obsidian Tear starts with a long duo for two men, Adam Elmes and Callum Linnane on opening night. Even before much happens – and a lot does – the seasoned viewer is aware of a power imbalance. Elmes, clad in red, is a member of the corps de ballet and looks impossibly young and defenceless. Linnane, in black, is a charismatic principal artist. That there is a relationship isn’t in doubt, its nature shifting between aggression and acquiescence, assertion and tenderness. This first part is danced to Lachen Verlernt, an astringent solo violin piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen played by the Opera Australia Orchestra’s Huy-Nguyen Bui. Salonen’s orchestral poem Nyx, magnetically delivered by the OAO and guest conductor Daniel Capps, drives the second section. It’s challenging material. Elmes’s young man is here something like the Chosen One from The Rite of Spring, participating in a ritual that has cast him as the victim. A hand on the shoulder here, a rough push there, a circle that feels threatening, gestures that could be interpreted as comforting or the opposite: all build an atmosphere of dread, amplified by the fact the cohort is one of men only (nine in all). Nyx is a goddess of night; possibly in this case of nightmare. 

There is some beauty in McGregor’s movement, particularly for the exquisitely pliant young man at the centre of the piece, but Obsidian Tear is mostly tense and unsettling. At one point it sends a shock through the house – a point at which perhaps the dance should have ended. What happens afterwards veers towards the sentimental but even though there are some reservations, Obsidian Tear is a work that will linger in my mind rather longer than many others.

Adam Bull and Amy Harris in Annealing. Photo by Daniel Boud

Which brings us to Alice Topp’s Annealing. Topp is TAB’s resident choreographer and has shown she has strong ideas with considerable potential to express deep feeling. In Aurum (2018), her inspiration was the glorious Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken objects are mended with gold. They are made whole again but with the joins showing. Fragility meets experience. For Annealing, Topp co-opts a scientific process in which heat makes material malleable so it can be worked with more easily. The transformation is from hard and brittle to flexible. The translation to human behaviour works, or would if Topp’s thesis of revealing strength through the acceptance of vulnerability made itself immediately, powerfully felt in what’s on stage.

Annealing, danced to a new commissioned score by Bryony Marks, is in three parts. It begins with an acrobatic duo undertaken impeccably on opening night by Amy Harris and Adam Bull, who had just earlier been an imposing authority figure in Obsidian Tear. Harris sits on Bull’s shoulder, is draped around his shoulders and does 180 degree splits while standing on pointe and then while being held upside down. Brittle? Yes, and by the end of Annealing it can be seen that the duo exists in stark contrast to the concluding soft-grained pas de deux for Dimity Azoury and Callum Linnane. But neither duo has a huge amount to say for itself or to one another across the divide of the middle section, a busy flurry of activity for a vast corps and several couples, all dressed in voluminous golden garments (designed by Kat Chan). Presumably this represents the application of heat but you have to go to the program note for guidance. Topp’s description of Annealing is powerful; frustratingly the dance itself doesn’t go on the promised emotional journey and Marks’s score, while attractive, doesn’t feel essential to the choreography. 

Instruments of Dance ends with an early Justin Peck work, Everywhere We Go (2014) to energetic music by his frequent collaborator Sufjan Stevens. Peck, 35, is a phenomenon – the fresh, exuberant face of 21st century ballet. While still a dancer with New York City Ballet he was named resident choreographer (Christopher Wheeldon was his predecessor) and Peck is now also the company’s artistic adviser. 

Imogen Chapman and Drew Hedditch in Everywhere We Go. Photo by Daniel Boud

Everywhere We Go is a big, joyous work for 25 dancers, firmly rooted in classical style but with a twist. Many twists, and a pleasingly democratic air. While there are seven artists given leading parts they are always emerging from or being absorbed back into the group. This ballet is very much about the “we” and Peck is great with large forces. The dancers, looking sporty in Janie Taylor’s sleek costumes, are occasionally seen for a moment or two in unison but never feel regimented or anonymous. They split into smaller cohorts and perhaps lie on the floor with legs pointing skywards. They catch confreres who have dashed onstage and carry them aloft. They leap like gazelles for no reason other than they can. More than once some perhaps get a little bit tired and start swaying but there’s always someone there to catch them. 

The constantly changing stage picture speaks of life and connection.  There’s no narrative but you can happily make up little stories for yourself as Everywhere We Go unfolds. There’s always something fun or interesting or unexpected and everywhere a ton of bravura dancing. There isn’t really enough room for the piece on the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage, but nothing new there. It’s possible – probable – one can blame that restriction, including minuscule wing space at the JST, for a handful of exits that looked more congested than ideal on opening night. Exits are important in Peck’s work, because even in an abstract piece such as this it’s clear the dancers are people you shouldn’t forget about just because they’ve disappeared for a bit.

Peck made Everywhere We Go for NYCB and it calls for that company’s fabled speed and clarity. Principal artist Brett Chynoweth was exemplary in that respect on opening night. The lights seem brighter and things in sharper focus when he’s around. Also exceptional was glamorous, luxuriant Imogen Chapman, promoted this year to senior artist. 

Instruments of Dance ends in Sydney on November 26.

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