Ballet dancers may retire from the rigours of performing, but the discipline and artistry never really leave them.
This is on full display in Paragon, Alice Topps’s dance tribute to 60 years of The Australian Ballet and part of the company's new double bill, Identity.
The hour-long work sweeps through the company's history using both projected photographs/films and a cast enhanced by 13 ex-The Australian Ballet company members spanning about five decades.
A nostalgic theme like this could turn into a laundry list of greatest hits. But Paragon is full of surprises within its intermingling of classical and modern styles and builds an airy, joyous work. All the dancers, from the youngest Corps de Ballet through to veterans like Madeleine Eastoe, David McAllister, Lucinda Dunn and Kirsty Martin (to name just a few illustrious guest artists) mingle in sharp duets and groupings inspired by works across the company’s repertoire.
Topp’s use of new choreography to evoke the past seasons feels simulaneously familiar and fresh. The sections have stylistic similarity to well-loved works like Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and many neo-classical offerings in the AB repertoire.
Recognizable but different!
Topp mixes this up with various generational partnerings like pairing current principal Adam Bull (himself retiring at the end of this season) with legends like Fiona Tonkin (his elder) and Amber Scott (his contemporary). Eastoe and Marcus Morelli have an especially nice coupling in Sehnsucht as do Martin and Steven Heathcote in Lake.
Jon Buswell’s simple set of tall rectangular pillars house the projections and slink around the space, creating entrances and exits for the dancers, and finally spinning around to reveal a replica of the ballet barre and windows of the company’s Southbank studios.
The comradery and empathy within the multi-generational cast is palpable. It’s a reminder that when dancers leave the spotlight, (which in ballet is generally early in a working life), their dance identities and their physical skills, stay embodied and embedded into their DNA. Paragon relives all that glorious physical history.
Opening the Identity program is The Hum by Daniel Riley. It sits far apart from Paragon aesthetically in its abstraction and contemporary style. Six dancers from Australian Dance Theatre (Riley is the new artistic director of ADT) join 11 ballet dancers for what is ultimately a large ensemble work. The different dance backgrounds are indistinguishable, with everyone uniting in a breathy, earthy momenteum.
Bodies softly deflate and then re-elongate with a pulsing energy, surging in groups and sometimes in complete solo. Inspired by murun (Wiradjuri for breath, life), the respiratory sounds are sustained throughout the various ebbs and flows of the non-stop physicality.
A circular hanging screen (by Matthew Adey) projects pixelated images of bones, anatomy and rock-like patterns that suggest both nature and science. To a busy and everchanging orchestral score by Deborah Cheetham Fraillon, The Hum sometimes feels driven more musically than physically, progressing forth with a swelling cinematic intensity and a sprawling visual narrative.
While the 50-minute running time is a stretch, many sections of dancing are particularly evocative, especially when the group supports and suspends an individual up from the masses or feature solos (Callum Linnane, Zachary Lopez and Jill Ogai to name just a few!) envelope the large stage.
The Hum is a very different beast to Paragon. Together they make for a heady double bill, as each is a full-length offering displaying its own interests and preoccupations.
But for all the contrasts, they are united by committed intention to their themes and wonderful dancing across the board.
The Australian Ballet presents
Choreography Alice Topp (Paragon) | Daniel Riley (THE HUM)
Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 16 – 24 June 2023