Anyone whose extreme youth was graced by the experience of watching the Nederlands Dans Theater is liable to be astonished by the fact that Kunstkamer, an anniversary work for this strange and grand company which has always negotiated the gulf set between modern dance and classical ballet, should not only be performed by the Australian Ballet but that the artistic director David Hallberg should be centre-stage as a kind of twitching stammering madman-in-chief of a work which is a monument to the attempt to animate the body with a thousand distortions and dislocations in order to dramatise whatever illuminations and illusions can be displayed.
The upshot in the case of the Dutch company back in 1972 was both mind-bending and exciting. They had plenty of nudity, plenty of private parts flopping around, and they were also intent on exhibiting the agonies and ecstasies of whatever trip the mind might subject itself to and the way this could be expressed in physical torment or excitation. If R.D. Laing, the man who wanted to understand what lay behind the gestures of madness, was the lord of anti-psychiatry the Nederlands Dans Theater was the realm of anti-ballet. And this is no doubt why Hallberg has been led to hand over the choreography of the Australian Ballet in its much heralded return to its Melbourne home to the master mimics bent on reconfiguring ballet to a drama that is beyond paraphrase.
His four choreographers – Paul Lightfoot and Marco Goerke, Sol Leon and Crystal Pite – do him proud and so does the Australian Ballet, rising to the challenge of a work done in a style which is like a distinct but remote memory of the hugely civilised and densely coded art they usually practise. This is a form of ballet with a family resemblance to the kind of theatre experiments Peter Brook practised when he went through the motions of cutting himself adrift from the classical theatre he had so majestically served.
Of course every gesture of Kunstkamer is a homage to the traditional art of ballet it is deconstructing. Figures emerge with great elegance from a sculpted darkness, then crash to the stage like fallen victims of tragedy. There are duos that parody classical style and pay homage to it at the same time. Bodies cling to each other, they clutch and slither and collapse. But the effect is exhilarating because the representation of every kind of extremity, physical and mental, is at the same time a revelation of balletic control of the very precise notation that can be brought to apparent chaos.
There is necessarily a fascination in seeing a classical company like the Australian Ballet get so down and dirty as well as so berserk and distrait. But the spirit of the dance is not mocked, it is celebrated by going through the motions of a primitivism that is sophisticated to its back – gnashing – teeth.
It’s not hard to guess that a lot of kids returning to the ballet as millennials will lap up the way this ceremonious black space opens up with its hoard of dancers to give the highest possible mime of a world of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
It’s a screaming, gyrating world full of wacko twitching and twisting and there are moments where it’s like an abstract form of Marat/Sade, without any storyline, served up for a time of plague and confusion. And, of course, it’s logical that Hallberg should present himself as the gibbering Prospero of this enchanted island (to change dramatic analogies) because he’s presenting ballet through the very sexually charged version of its anti-self.
It’s a world of nuttiness, of marionettes as mad as meataxes, of the kind of hallucination that can only issue into a high-pitched scream. So every form of dance, every preconceived conception, collapses into chaos and confusion though, of course, there is method in the madness. The dancers turn into a massed conglomerate of bodies, possessed by desire or despair, but there is great beauty in the twisting and turning and a terrific punchiness and panache in the crowd of figures sliding and falling.
And there is also the lyricism that comes from the touches of private communion. A tambourine here, a piano there. Bodies that seem capable only of following distorted rhythms take on a beauty of their own.
And the whole choreographic logic is one of revelation. If this is a nearly psychedelic show in the unpredictability of the lights and darks, the torments and straightjacketing of human movement, it is also constantly surprising.
You get Beethoven, you get Schubert. You get moments of high and mighty serenity in the midst of turmoil. And there are also the tributes to the Sixties, the time that unleashed this vision of the world. No doubt it’s inevitable that you hear the voice of the ‘get it while you can’ lady, the great Janis Joplin, dead at 27.
It’s interesting to speculate on what David Hallberg thought he was doing not only putting himself in the hands of Nederlands choreographers but returning to the stage as a spitting, gabbling Frankenstein’s monster of the dance.
One thing he seems to have been banking on with some shrewdness is the sheer erotic pulsation of Kunstkamer. This is a brilliant halfway house between the elaborate stylisations of classical ballet and an artful representation of the mass of frenzied and nakedly exposed physical expressiveness out of which the ballet must come.
It is brilliantly executed and it presents in a whirlwind of contradictions the precise control and the illusion of abandonment and loss of control which is so central to the drama of the whole ballet caper, high and low. You know with Kunstkamer that every collapsing body, every mouth set wide as the throat is about to scream, is measuring itself against the mad artistry of a Nijinsky, the supreme dramatic bravura of a Nureyev.
The millennial girls who saw it loved it. The body and its thousand tricks and twitches, the depth of desire and the intensity of frustration kept them on their toes. ‘We loved it,’ they said.
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