In the programming of Kunstkamer for the Australian Ballet’s 2022 season by artistic director, David Hallberg, he warned that it would be a ballet “like we have never done before”. Those words certainly stood up to scrutiny Friday night as Kunstkamer premiered on the Melbourne Arts Center stage. A curious and obsessive work of genius, created by four choreographers and bringing together more than 40 dancers from the company, the ballet was spectacularly unique.
Kunstkamer was created for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 2019, drawing inspiration from the menageries of natural wonders that became popular in the 18th century, as well as the beautifully illustrated book by Albertus Seba The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. The general direction of ballet, said choreographer Paul Lightfoot, is to draw a line between artistic and scientific practice, to elucidate the vital connection between all things in the universe. Kunstkamerhe says, is “like a museum” where one begins to see the “thread or spirit” that unites works of art and curiosities.
The effect was a wildly overwhelming ballet, with deft synchronization of the dancers and elaborate decor. The stage transformed into a corridor with high doors where the dancers appeared, an angelic glow illuminating their entrances and exits. The lighting alone was a beautiful orchestra, kudos to Tom Bervoort, Udo Haberland and Tom Visser, as spotlights focused on each of the dancers and shadows were used to create an eerie atmosphere.
Also incredible are the films of Rahu Rezvani, projected onto the curtain at the start of the work, androgynous bodies resonating in the darkness, each tendon of their alabaster body gleaming then fading into a ghostly blur. The comic appearance of a rhinoceros in the projections set the playful tone for the opening of the curtains.
The music changed frequently throughout the play, from chamber music by Henry Purcell to contemporary composers, namely Òlafur Amalds. Purcell’s choral piece “King Arthur” was performed with emotion by the dancers, another glorious surprise. The score, beautifully performed by the Opera Australia Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria, intricately followed the changing register of the piece, taking the audience on a whimsical and captivating journey. “We wanted to create an evening that felt like the experience of reading a book,” Lightfoot said.
To read: Theatrical criticism: Antigone
So many sections of the choreography were surprisingly brilliant; there were ironic departures from classical ballet, like robotic ascents in posture behind, an elevator where a dancer is supported to climb a wall and reflex great beats. Sometimes the dancers were staggering, stiff, and at other times their movements were blended, fluid. Costume design, by Jake Visser and Hermien Hollander, heightened the drama of movement, as the thrown body in trench coats across the stage, coat tails rustling behind them.
Lilla Harvey and Callum Linnane were breathtaking in their angular and elegant pas de deux. They spun and balanced with the serenity of a suspended mobile, and beautiful flex and energy. David Hallberg was imposing and statuesque in his much-anticipated role as the spirit or governess of the Kunstkamer. His smarmy diction and sinuous movements were perfectly articulated and convincing.
Really Kunstkamer captures an important moment for the Australian Ballet after the past few years of isolation and delay, the coalescence of so many magnificent artists coming together wholeheartedly to celebrate the power of art to move and the wondrous enigma of connection human.
With Victoria Orchestra
State Theatre, Melbourne Arts Center
Choreography: Paul Lightfoot, Sol Leon, Crystal Pite, Marco Goecke
Composers: Ludwig van Beethoven, Janis Joplin, Arvo Pärt, Béla Bertók, Franz Schubert, Benjamin Britten, Henry Purcell, Joby Talbot, Johann Strauss Jnr, Christoph W Gluck, Chavela Vargas, Ólafur Arnalds
Costume design: Joke Visser, Hermien Hollander
Original lighting design: Tom Bevoort, Udo Haberland, Tom Visser
Movie: Rahi Rezvani
Tickets: $50 to $292
Kuntskamer will be played until June 11, 2022