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Paragon

From out of retirement came twelve dancers of the Australian Ballet. Julie de Costa, Simon Dow, Lucinda Dunn, Madeleine Eastoe, Steven Heathcote, Paul Knobloch, Kirsty Martin, David McAllister, Sarah Peace, Leanne Stojmenov, Jessica Thompson, and Fiona Tonkin.[1] A dozen dancers to usher, in a sense, Adam Bull into his retirement at the close of the Melbourne season of “Identity,” in Alice Topp’s “Paragon.”

Performance

The Australian Ballet: “Paragon” and “The Hum”

Place

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 20 & 23, 2023

Words

Gracia Haby

Fiona Tonkin and Adam Bull in “Paragon” by Alice Topp. Photograph by Daniel Boud

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The piece, while created to celebrate in 60 fast minutes 60 years of the Australian Ballet, a diamond anniversary, naturally included a selection of beautiful moments to coincide with Bull’s own retirement from the stage after more than two decades with the company; in particular the opening scene where Bull held in his arms a swathe of tulle onto which still and moving images from the company’s 60 years flickered. As Bull unfastened this rippled screen and wrapped it close to his chest, Heathcote and Adam Elmes, the Past (in the nicest sense), and Future met. It was hard not to see this as a changing of the guard, as each one handed over to the other and exited the stage, for this art form is not fixed but ever growing. And while in this instance, in June, 2023, it is Bull who is retiring, perhaps this role, when this work is next performed, will be filled by another dancer bidding farewell to their life on the stage, encircled by their peers and esteemed alumni.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in “Paragon” by Alice Topp. Photograph by Daniel Boud

But before I get too tangled up in farewells and retirements, this new work by resident choreographer, Topp, commissioned by the Australian Ballet, is also about how one never really retires. You might exit the stage, but does dance ever really leave your body? The answer, Topp presents, is a resounding no. Dance is a part of a dancer, of us all, by extension, at a cellular level; whether it is bathed in limelight or not. The next branches might look radically different, on an individual level, but they have grown from what proceeded them.

The body is an archive.

And it is this vein of perpetuity which, for me, links Topp’s “Paragon” with Daniel Riley’s “The Hum.” A timeless thread within us all, on an individual level, and one that connects us all to what was, what is, and what will be. The time span can be a single dancer’s career, in this instance, Bull’s; a company’s life, the Australian Ballet’s 60 years’ strong; or, as “The Hum” vibrates, thousands of years, stretching back in search of “cultural perpetuity which aims to connect rather than divide,” as Riley explains.[2] 

 

Memory is knowledge.

The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre in “The Hum” by Daniel Riley. Photograph by Daniel Boud

“The Hum,” commissioned by the Australian Ballet, and choreographed by Australian Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Riley, removed the ‘once’ from ‘once a dancer’ in exploration of the continuous dancing body in perpetual transformation as being an internal, ‘felt’ energy. As such, ADT dancers, Brianna Kell, Karra Nam, Zoe Wizniak, Zachary Lopez, Patrick O’Luanaigh, and Sebastian Geilings became sound waves bunched together and spreading out, conveying that “all knowledge, no matter where you store it, is based on memory.”[3] They were joined by eleven dancers of the Australian Ballet, Coco Mathieson, Jill Ogai, Katherine Sonnekus, Evie Ferris, Lilla Harvey, Callum Linnane, Nathan Brook, Timothy Coleman, Rohan Furnell, Joseph Romancewicz, and Drew Hedditch, but this was a divide by company name only. Within the work, all the dancers moved as a collective sedimentation of knowledge as they sliced through sound relays and buzzed. 

As Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s score built, just as “birds and frogs that live near rushing waterways vocalise with loud and high-frequency calls, vaulting over the masking rush of water,”[4] the dancers blazed with a sonic avidity that lingered on my skin. And for a moment in the theatre I understood the nuance of hearing with the whole body the way a cricket or a grasshopper might.[5]

The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre in “The Hum” by Daniel Riley. Photograph by Daniel Boud

Both “The Hum,” with Riley’s coaxing of “tangible yet invisible creative connections,”[6] and “Paragon,” with Topp’s “rich palette of intergenerational voices,”[7] drew lines of connection between individuals and place, in honour of collaboration, and the practice of reciprocity that extends beyond the constructed walls of any studio or theatre. In collaboration with the cast, composers, musicians, and the many hands who shape a work, as the tiny hairs on cells tell, as I experienced the transmission. “Paragon” alone featured 285 projections in its hat tip to costume, set and lighting design, and those in the biodiversity of backstage.

From Topp’s evocative longing in the aptly titled “Saudade” pas de deux especially for former principal artist Tonkin, with Bull (on the Tuesday evening), to the all-too-quick, golden sweep-rustle that was “Glow,” sensory perception and a deep knowledge of their performing bodies were at the fore and magnificent.

Each dancer, all, performed variations, distinguished by their own buzz, but they share the same pattern of knowledge and it was beautiful to behold. The unique ecosystem, it thrummed.

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. Julie de Costa (1969–1984) for the Melbourne season only; Rachel Rawlins (2002–2012) for the Sydney season only.
  2. Daniel Riley, quoted by Ben McKeown, Ancestral Energies: An invisible connection between sight and sound, The Australian Ballet’s “Identity” programme (Melbourne and Sydney), 18.
  3. “All knowledge, no matter where you store it, is based on memory. It is as if Aboriginal cultures read modern neuroscience and created a knowledge system to match. In truth, the system evolved over thousands of years, constantly being tested and perfected with use. Songlines optimise the way memory works.” Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly, “Songlines: The Power and Promise” (Port Melbourne, Victoria: Thames & Hudson Australia, 2020), 86.
  4. David George Haskell, “Sounds Wild & Broken” (Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc., 2022), 86.
  5. “Crickets have drumlike hearing organs in their front legs, but grasshoppers hear through membranes on their abdomens. . . . We humans can feel vibrations on our skin and in our flesh as well as in our ears, but these are crude and blurry sensations compared with the nuanced whole-body hearing experience of other beings.” David George Haskell, “Sounds Wild & Broken,” 17.
  6. “The Hum” synopsis, The Australian Ballet “Identity” programme, 10.
  7. Alice Topp, Choreographer’s Note, “Paragon”, The Australian Ballet “Identity” programme, 22.

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