Like Leonard Cohen’s lamentation, “Anthem.” Like the Japanese art of repair, ‘kintsugi.’ Like you and me, the human condition. Like all of these things, Alice Topp’s brand new work, “Aurum” was presented as part of the Australian Ballet’s “Verve” program.
“Aurum” is Topp’s first one-act ballet for the company, building upon her choreographic piece “Little Atlas” in 2016/17, and muscles stretched and tensed in exploration within her previous works, “Same Vein,” “Tinted Windows,” “Scope” and “Trace” presented in previous editions of the Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program. Created with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance from the Joyce Theatre in New York, “Aurum,” was as incandescent as liquid gold. Preceded by the linear, of the air elegance, and framed serenity of Stephen Baynes’ “Constant Variants” (2007), and fervently stalked by Tim Harbour’s slingshot from a storm’s nucleus, “Filigree and Shadow” (2015), for me, “Aurum” fused heat with heart, and together the triple bill became the embodiment of the word ‘verve’, bringing ‘vigour and spirit’ through restraint, soul, and agitation.
Drawing initial inspiration from the ‘golden joinery’ of kintsugi (or ‘kintukuroi’ meaning ‘golden repair’), the Japanese technique of repairing a break or fracture within ceramic pieces with a lacquer dusted with gold, “Aurum” was a celebration of our golden seams. Just as the art form honours the history of the artefact and sees it as something in need of restoration as opposed to the end of the line, “Aurum” sought to illuminate the unique appearance of our own accumulative ‘broken’ pieces and ‘imperfections.’ With fluid, serpentine movements, Robyn Hendricks and Andrew Killian mirrored liquid gold in the process of revitalizing what was injured. In doing so, something more beautiful than beforehand was shown to emerge; more beautiful, but namely, more truthful, as they “[rang] the bells that still can sing:” nothing lasts and we are all imperfect.
Ring the bells that still can ring–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Our seams and cracks, be they through physical injury or knocks to and aches of the heart, are markers of our lived experience, and through acceptance we can come to find meaning in them and appreciation: I am here, imperfect and all the stronger for it. As Christopher Rodgers-Wilson replaced metal ligatures for golden joinery on the stage, he was proof that “injury and rehabilitation can be enlightening in unlocking a new path forward and arming you with a stronger resolve and new found sense of appreciation for your dancing”. Mending is an art, and the essence of resilience.
In other moments, the “crack in everything” could be read in the lines separating two dancers from each other. Between Coco Mathieson and Callum Linnane, their ever-unfixed negative space created an even river line from head to toe. It appeared as if they were the one worn form in the landscape, cleaved in two by the passage of water and/or time: when one part of Mathieson was convex, Linnane’s neighbouring body was concave. Framed in white costumes, designed by Topp, with the dark stage behind them, it was the negative space they created which caught my eye, the background illuminating the foreground. Together, they made the space that let the light in, and it was breathtaking.
Elsewhere, this sensation was evoked in the space one dancer tried to fill when entwined with another. With a head tilted to one side and the opposite arm extended, a lovely long U shape was drawn with the body, a lovely long U shape for another to fill with their head lowered, their ear to the other’s shoulder. A shoulder for a pillow, an arm for support, an ear pressed close so as to hear, a meld of two as one, a perfect fit; the joint-call technique of kintsugi, where a similar shaped piece is used to replace the broken one. Each movement flowed into another, but always either filling the outline made by the other, or following the river bend of the other, but never crossing it, instead, shining a light through it. At times, Amanda McGuigan, Karen Nanasca, and Sharni Spencer rippled and sparkled like light as it sought to emblazon the darkness. Gold and darkness made splendid by staging and lighting design by Jon Buswell.
Light does not just pour into the spaces of what is broken, from the outside in, it also comes from within, as was illuminated by Nathan Brook, Jarryd Madden, Jake Mangakahia, and Dana Stephensen. Their movements showed that it is less about being without, and more about lighting darkness within as the outer vessel, the body, healed. Mending the broken cracks and becoming whole comes through you and lights you up.
Whether in an intimate pas de deux or as part of a larger ensemble, “Aurum” gave each dancer the room to display their own unique marks and life lessons, and showed them as being “strong[er] at the broken places.” If you take but one line of text and polish it in your palm, rubbing it gold with your fingers, it is capable of transformation. “Aurum” appears to do so with a line from Ernest Hemmingway’s novel, Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Out of context, such a line reads as being one of optimism and resilience. But when you look at the lines above and below it, the character on the page, Henry, is actually pouring forth a dark philosophy on life. In one paragraph Henry glides from euphoria, as Catherine lightens his feeling of loneliness through togetherness, you and me, to the realisation that no matter what, the world “kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Soon enough, no matter what, irrespective of the positive golden force of love and goodness, strength and gentleness, the world has “to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” It’s just a matter of time.
And, yes, in the sense of “Aurum,” as I spin it over in my palm the day after seeing its sixth performance, it is just a matter of time. “Aurum” was not just referencing this one line from several. There was, upon reflection, a dark undercurrent I had not noticed until now. It was within the intensity of movement on stage as Ludovico Einaudi’s Choros prepared to boil over. It was in the shadows of the figures behind the screen which turned out not to be shadowed extensions of the dancers but figures who moved independently. It was there within the moments I later unspooled in the theatre of my mind’s eye. After the gold had set. After the surface had cooled, there it was: a dark emanation, “…. No special hurry.” It’s just a matter of time.