Dance review: Clay (digital), The Australian Ballet

Claychoreographed by Alice Topp, lends itself to seductive cinematic form in the Bodytorque.Digital Australian Ballet online series. With the recent cancellation of the ballet’s summer gala, this makes for wonderful viewing in the meantime; a reminder to the audience of the powerful intimacy and comfort of dance in times of disorientation. Topp says in her introduction to the play that she hopes Clay can show the poetry of human connection through shared energy and touch. The work emulates a soft fusion of bodies, the way clay becomes smooth and supple with heat and humidity and has moments of intense vulnerability, and the way clay crumbles when dry. Speaking about the work, dancer Nathan Brook mentions the turmoil of the past two years with the isolation and disruption of people’s lives and suggests that audiences will be drawn to the tenderness of the work. The emotion of the live performances ran deep as he said “the rug has been pulled out from under us”, since the dancers learned at the premiere of this piece of the impending lockdowns.

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The dancers describe how the piece evolved only in emotional strength; the reassembly of the work at the Sydney Opera House in November 2021, after the city’s long confinement, was both a kind of tender homecoming and an ecstatic climax. having seen Clay live on stage and in cinema, I feel that videography brings a unique and expansive dimension to the work. Brook says he hopes digital viewers can see Karen (his co-star in the play) “through [his] the eyes’. Like Roland Barthes’ concept of the “third sense”, cinema lends itself to a “signified”, emotional reading. The register of emotion is perhaps more intoxicating and attracts the spectator more than the live performance in a large theater.

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Clay by Alice Topp

The sensuality of this piece perhaps recalls The little dead by Jiří Kyliá and lends itself so well to the many convergent and divergent perspectives of cinema. Cinematographer Brett Ludeman did a magnificent job alongside music producer Nicolette Fraillon to weave in a visual and auditory delight that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Brook and Nanesca caress, roll and glide over each other with tension and ease to an ethereal score by Ella Macens. The cello section, performed by Melissa Chominsky, is played with heartbreaking virtuosity. They dance together in a cloistered space; a domed room with exposed brick walls, adding to the intensity of the pas de deux. The choreographic score involves counterweights, sustained balances and turns with the dancers’ faces and bodies mere millimeters apart, ebbing and flowing like waves.

“It’s hard to watch sometimes because you feel like you’re watching something happening behind closed doors…it’s really intense,” Topp says, and that’s the lasting effect of this piece. Clay lays two people completely bare in their intimacies and intricacies in a way that invites viewers to access the most tender parts of their own being. In doing so, he invites the audience to embrace these messy, romantic/broken, near/distant, composed/uninhibited parts of themselves and the times in a deeply touching way.

Clayby Alice Topp
Presented by Bodytorque.Digital by the Australian Ballet

Choreography: Alice Topp
Performers: Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook
Original music: Ella Macens
Music: Kylie Foster, Monica Naselow, Thomas Higham, Melissa
Sound engineers: Guus Hoevenaars and Nathaniel Currie
Audio Editor: Tony David Cray
Musical producer: Nicolette Fraillon AM
Music recorded at Newmarket Studios
Director of photography: Brett Ludeman
Camera/lighting operators: David Ward and David McRobbie Park
Production manager: Eloise Fryer

Still photography: Edita Knowler
Editor: Brett Ludeman
Behind the scenes: editor David Ward
Visual effects: Stephen Wood
Producer: Robyn Fincham
Filmed on location at Norla Dome, Mission to Seafarers Victoria
Special thanks to Orchestra Victoria, Simon Thew, Ellen Dutton, Daria Wray and Sue Dight.