What to make of the ballet grin? The lights go up and the harpsichord starts on a troupe of dancers all in rows and all smiling with determination. It would be gloriously theatrical if the grins were stretched to creepiness. But they’re not: the piece calls for forced jollity. It opens the Dance Dialogues program by Queensland Ballet at the company’s home in the Thomas Dixon Centre and it’s a series of dance vignettes set by choreographer Paul Boyd to Beatles songs reimagined in the concerto grosso style by composer Peter Breiner. His music is light and swift, as are Boyd’s steps. The dancers — many of them Jette Parker Young Artists — display neat, buoyant batterie, strong turns and clear placement. They attack Baroque Beatles at full throttle, which means there is a kind of eisteddfod quality to the piece that limits true spontaneity and joy. Those grins work hard.
The main purpose of Dance Dialogues is to showcase emerging choreographers within QB and elsewhere. The next section was created by Alice Topp, a coryphée with the Australian Ballet. It inhabits ‘a space between loss and longing’, according to her notes, to music by Philip Glass (‘Truman Sleeps’, ‘Metamorphosis Three’ and ‘I’m Going to Make a Cake’, all soundtracks). The form of the piece is 2 pas de deux and 1 trio, and the lifts are fluid and imaginative, one move shifting seamlessly into the next. Topp builds a sustained atmosphere of sombre shadows; upstage, between her 3 vignettes, drips fall into buckets. The 2nd of her pas de deux is danced by principal artists Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos. They provide a master class in how to manage a persona on stage when the audience is only a few metres away: engrossed in the tenderness and tension expressed by the steps, yet mindful of being watched, creating intimacy both with each other and with the spectator.
The Flames of Paris
Dance Dialogues also opens a window into the rehearsal studio. In the next section, ballet mistress Mary Li ‘coaches’ 2 company artists Sophie Zoricic and D’Arcy Brazier in variations from The Flames of Paris. This work by Vasily Vainonen is a drambalet from 1935, which premiered in Leningrad in 1932 for the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. That means showy tricks: leaps, turns, beats and leaps with turns and beats. The section is artificial in that Li is not really giving the dancers new corrections, but she is a vital presence who orchestrates a lively episode and the audience happily goes along. Her directions to the dancers show her professional powers of observation —draw in the ribcage in that balance, pull in that shoulder in that turn, point your foot into the leap and point out of it. Zoricic and Brazier execute difficult steps with aplomb and there are frequent bursts of applause at their efforts. The attentiveness of pianist Kylie Foster provides another moving reminder of how artists combine their talents in the service of the work.
Kylie Foster stays at the piano for the following section by Jack Lister. She plays Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, Andante Sostenuto, and Lister’s piece is a pas de deux danced by Georgia Swan and Vito Bernasconi. His stated theme is momento mori. There are similarities with Warm Tears: both are influenced by contact technique, they share a movement in which a hand grazes a cheek. But Lister is more theatrical in his use of falls and stillness and in exploiting the lighting design. There is a growing urgency that propels the movement forward, developed by the dancers and Foster’s playing. Swan and Bernasconi believe intensely in what they are dancing and they create a unison of moving bodies that is the essence of pas de deux. They seem oblivious to the audience, which means the spectators are drawn all the more willingly into their drama on stage.
The final section takes as its starting point ‘The realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own …’ These words do not immediately suggest black pointe shoes, but one of the useful professional challenges put to the choreographers on the program is making do with available resources. At least, the choreographer, Teri Crilly, was allowed the considerable privilege of collaborating directly with Wil Hughes on a new composition for her piece, thanks to Denise Wadley. Her choreography is neo-classical with fervent contemporary accents. The dancers hug their bodies and hold their faces in private anguish and then posé into 1st arabesque. It is hard to see the words in the steps, although the choreographer’s meanings for each movement are usually opaque. It does not really matter what they thought in the studio, what matters is the impression conveyed on stage. Here the impression is of attractive neo-classical ballet danced with conviction.
It was a long evening and Sonder may have suffered by coming last. Still, young choreographers need to test their ideas on real bodies, to create within a tight rehearsal schedule — and to discover if they can make a connection with their audience. Dance Dialogues is a vital addition to QB’s annual programming, an investment in the future. That said, while the work of Topp, Lister and Crilly was accomplished and watchable, there was no back-of-the-neck-goosebumps from glimpsing a bold new perspective. Themes like loss and longing and seizing the moment are a bit soft. Crilly’s premise was the most original, but she did not find a powerful idiom to embody the ways we are locked in our headspaces. Of them all, Jack Lister created the most intense emotional experience and may be the one who one day will fill a lyric theatre. But Dance Dialogues is not a competition, it’s an opportunity, an encounter, an invitation … a dialogue.