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Flash Review 1, 9-16: Ready, Lukewarm, and Green
Lions and Tangos and Cubs in Oz, oh my

By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2004 Chloe Smethurst

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MELBOURNE -- Opening the Australian Ballet's "Red Hot and New" program Friday at the State Theatre was Christopher Wheeldon's 2002 "Continuum." Performed to a complex score for piano and harpsichord by Gyorgi Ligeti, the challenging accompaniment was well matched by both choreographer and dancers in mood and intensity.

Comprised of concise solos, duets and ensemble sections for a cast of eight, the piece gathered momentum as it progressed. It began clinically geometric and angular, with the first pas de deux for Fan Xiofeng (formerly of the Shanghai Ballet) and Robert Curran very formal in structure and traditional in style. Promenades and arabesques occasionally softening into a flexed and contracted attitude allowed little room for expression other than the display of razor-sharp technique.

Danielle Rowe and Matthew Lawrence danced a slightly less austere duet, combining suspended, rounded shapes with a little more modernism in their partnering work, while Madeleine Eastoe and Marc Cassidy whirled around the stage with lightning-quick footwork in their short solos and pas de deux. Separate ensemble sections for the women and men were less effective in their impact but still very well danced.

Lighting design by Natasha Katz made the most of the cyclorama and black curtains, altering the coloring, brightness and shape of the backdrop for each vignette to compensate for the lack of set. Simple green leotards for costumes kept the focus on the clean lines of the choreography.

The highlight of the work came in the final duet performed by Damien Welch and Olivia Bell, both dancing with assured confidence and exceptional artistry. Here Wheeldon revealed his true creative voice with seamless, unconventional partnering and imagery both subtle and startling. His choreography went beyond the boundaries of ballet and became a language outside the limits of any set technique, the dancers using their hands and arms to create miniature worlds within the movement. As the last notes were drawn out into silence I was left longing for more.

Unfortunately the triple bill went downhill from there, as the inexperienced Burnett and seemingly under-rehearsed Fonte works could not stand up against the faultless performance of "Continuum."

Nicolo Fonte's "Almost Tango," choreographed in 2002, was interesting for its use of male partnering and the dominance of the male dancers. With a cast of 14, only four of whom were women, Fonte filled the stage with male presence, as it would have been in the tango halls of Argentina, where the men outnumbered the women.

Focusing on the style and energy of tango rather than a literal interpretation, it is not until the closing sequences that Fonte features a male-female partnership which resembles the tango we know. While the novelty of seeing dynamic male partnerships captured my interest, the remainder of the work was rather forgettable.

The influence of Nacho Duato on Fonte's choreography could be seen in his emphasis on fluidity in the upper back and expressive arm movements. He also tends towards high kicking hyper-extension through the legs and hips, a direct contrast to the precision of the previous work. On this cast that was the downfall of the piece, with too many personal interpretations amongst the ensemble making the unison sections messy and hard to watch.

For different reasons, the premiere of Adrian Burnett's first piece for the Australian Ballet as its resident choreographer was also difficult to watch. "Aesthetic Arrest" is an unfocussed, unstructured and at times awkward attempt at modern ballet. Choreographing to "Fearful Symmetries" by John Adams, Burnett appears to be experimenting with adding movements from the contemporary dance repertoire to classical ballet. It has been done before, and with much more success than in this piece.

There was a definite lack of intention from both creator and performers -- nobody seemed to know what the point of this work was. In his program notes, Burnett writes, "I chose the name 'Aesthetic Arrest' because I love the sound of it." Not exactly the most comprehensive engagement with his subject material I would say.

The only dancer who seemed comfortable was Marc Cassidy, who opened the piece with a whimsical solo including warped handstands and grounded, relaxed movements. Adam Bull and Olivia Bell performed the main pas de deux, both looking uncharacteristically clumsy in Burnett's ungainly choreography.

At one point, Peter England's box-like set is pushed downstage by the men and spun around to reveal unevenly spaced crimson booths inhabited by writhing dancers displaying their flexibility. It is a scene which doesn't appear to have any relationship to the rest of the piece and would perhaps be more at home in a music video.

Overall, Red Hot and New could have benefited from more judicious programming. Perhaps moving "Aesthetic Arrest" to the start of the night would have reduced the pressure on the choreographer who was making his debut, leaving the more accomplished Wheeldon to finish the night on a high note.

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