The Australian Ballet opened its season at the David Koch Theater, its first visit to New York in 13 years, with a mixed bill. The first act, a series of excerpts collectively titled Luminous, was accompanied by a documentary film touting the company’s achievements in its first 50 years. The company, the film boasts, has attracted a loyal following, grown its roster significantly, and attracted the praise of ballet legends such as Rudolf Nureyev.
What the company lacks, if this program is any indication, is a stable of worthwhile choreography. The Australian dancers themselves showed ample promise, displaying no shortage of energy, charisma, and technique, but they succeeded most when they transcended the stifling works they were performing. The choreography too rarely stretched the mind, entertained, or provided innovative commentary on ballet as an art form.
Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, set to Steve Reich’s Double Septet, turned out best. In a program note, McGregor explains his twofold inspiration for the piece: the pioneering spirit of the Ballets Russes and Richard Evelyn Byrd’s pioneering flight over the South Pole. The high-art staging — minimalist black and white costumes and set designs, paired with fluorescent lights — makes the Diaghilev connection clear, but the Antarctic connection is less obvious.
The piece has a relentless momentum. Its 12 dancers, whose entrances and exits are countless, show no traces of emotion. Limbs move of their own accord, and dancing in unison abruptly dissolves, launching the performers into unique, entirely unrelated steps. The eye is constantly engaged, but as with other McGregor works I’ve seen, Dyad’s choreography has a dehumanizing effect on its dancers. The speed and fluidity rarely allow the viewer to appreciate any one image for more than a split-second, and to process so much simultaneous, hyperkinetic movement can be overwhelming.
The program closed with Warumuk—in the dark night, the company’s fifth collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre, an indigenous Australian contemporary dance company. (The ensemble’s artistic director, Stephen Page, choreographed the work, and his brother David composed the score.) Waramuk, danced in bare feet and inspired by Aboriginal folklore, abounds with arresting imagery. Jennifer Irwin’s detailed costumes and Jacob Nash’s set designs, which evoke an open starry sky, complement each other marvelously.
Almost none of Warumuk’s beauty, however, comes from its dancing, which is performed in most sections by an ensemble and a soloist. Although intended to express a number of stories of the Yolngu people, the dance vocabulary is limited and repetitive, causing one chapter to blend into the next. Another problem is its pacing. Warumuk lasted about 30 minutes, but it felt twice as long. Half of the audience members in my row left the theater mid-way through the piece, and I couldn’t blame them.
The shorter pieces, though also showcasing the array of choreography made for the company, fared little better. Some passages in Luminous derived from contemporary re-stagings of classic story ballets, while others were original creations. Taken together, they read like a bland series of circus feats. In Petal Miller-Ashmole’s La Favorita, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello tweaked traditional bravura steps, but the duet never became more than technical exercise. Similarly, a pas de deux from Nureyev’s Don Quixote, danced by Reiko Hombo and Gengwu Guo, could have easily been a game to see how many many exaggerated lifts, jétes, fouettés, and fish dives 10 minutes would allow.
Most confounding were the pas de deux and ninth movement from Divergence, a work created by Stanton Welch for the company in 1994. A duet for Leanne Stojmenov and Rudy Hawkes remarkable only for its speed gives way to a dance for 10 couples. While Bizet’s L’Arlesienne plays, men in low-cut leotards beat their chests to the music’s heavy pulse, and women squat and awkwardly wiggle out of wide black tutus, allowing them to fall to ground before tossing them around the stage. It’s a vision of ballet hell, and not only because some women have coifs resembling horns. Not quite a metaphor for the entire evening, but this company, and the audience, really deserve more worthwhile choreography.