Conventional sells. We know that; a ‘straight’ ballet company will always have its audience, but productions that bend and blur boundaries between the contemporary and the traditional are always a harder flog.
Take, for example, Australian Dance Theatre. Its dancers are trained in multiple disciplines, including gymnastics, ashanta yoga and martial arts; meditation has also been introduced to the dancers’ training schedule this year.
One dancer, Troy Honeysett, having trained as a kick-boxer in his youth, took an interest in break-dancing before eventually getting into classical ballet at age 18. While he may not even be considered for the corps de ballet at an institution like the Royal Ballet, at Australian Dance Theatre, he has been given a chance to shine.
G is the new work by choreographer Garry Stewart. It’s a re-imagining of Giselle. Unlike Matthew Bourne, who takes classical ballets (and more recently, films and books like his recent staging of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray) and puts them in a different context but ultimately sticks to the basic narrative, Stewart takes fragments of the emotions displayed in the classical Giselle, most notably the idea of madness so central to the plot, and shows them in dance form; sometimes pretty literally: towards the end of the piece, the cast couru across the stage with exaggerated facial expressions and movements, perfectly demonstrating Giselle’s descent into hysteria.
The 13-strong cast is magnificent changing from one style to another with utter ease and creating some very complex sequences. To perform a double pirouette (in the most classical sense possible) followed by a break-dance-style roll across the floor is no mean feat. One section sees the female performers doing break-dance headstands on the backs of the male dancers, who then push up with their arms to throw them off. Another scene has the female performers couru on stage en pointe with their respective male partners, the epitome of classical ballet; but what you actually see is firmly in the contemporary camp, with contractions and movements performed with bent knees. This mixture of styles, and their ability to change from one to another in a matter of seconds, showcases the dancers’ all-round talent beautifully.
While the dancing within the piece does not follow the narrative directly, some ideas have been injected to remind the audience of (or is that to mock?) the piece’s classical heritage. G works on a ‘corridor’ style dancers only enter from one specific point stage right, and only exit by one specific point stage left: a visual representation of a linear narrative. Supporting this idea is the LCD screen above the stage, which tells the ballet’s story in short bursts to maintain some small element of the classical narrative.
Stewart puts his dancers in green costumes to reflect Giselle‘s pastoral settings. The women’s costumes, in particular, are perfect examples of Stewart’s vision of a classical/contemporary fusion, wearing green halter-necks and bra tops with traditional tutus.
At a time when people are less intimidated by the term ‘dance’ – helped by the rising popularity of break-dance and hip hop, as well as the mass media exposure afforded to programmes like Strictly Come Dancing – there is no reason why Australian Dance Theatre shouldn’t be more popular than they are, as they genuinely offer something for everyone. That the venue was half-empty was more a comment on how the public view modern dance, than on the company itself.