Adam Elmes (right) and David Hallberg in “Kunstkamer.” Photograph by Daniel Boud

Serious Play

The Australian Ballet's “Kunstkamer” premieres in Melbourne

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Kunstkamer”
Place
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia, June 3-9, livestream June 10, 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

Remember me. Remember me. The comforting darkness that floats behind the heartache of Henry Purcell’s Lament from “Dido and Aeneas,” When I am laid in the earth: remember me. Be now, in the present, remember me. So begins “Kunstkamer,” originally commissioned in 2019 for the 60th anniversary of Netherlands Dans Theater, and presented for the first time outside of the Netherlands by the Australian Ballet.

Against the darkness, four memory-figures appear from the archives as larger-than-life projections before metamorphosing into the image of a single-horned rhinoceros. A rare Javan rhinoceros for a collector stockpiling splendid specimens from the four corners of the earth? Or a tribute to Miss Clara, a Greater one-horned rhinoceros whose public exhibition inspired poems, tapestries, and fashionable horned hairstyles? Clara, then, was immortalized in bronze,1 marble, porcelain, and oil, was she now being remembered in film by Sol León and Rahi Rezvani?

Benedicte Bemet in “Kunstkamer.” Photograph by Daniel Boud

The screen rises and the scene nods, for me, to a memory of Pietro Longhi’s painting, Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751).2 A sombre, sorry scene of ‘amusement’ in which Clara no longer has her horn. Her power and threat removed, it is now a trophy in the hands of the man bearing the whip. Behind her, a wall. At her feet, some hay. That is the canvas. What of the stage? Behind a tall, dark figure, a wall. He makes a series of low muffled grunts. He snorts. Walks backwards, in a measured pace indicating his familiarity with the space. His feet stamp at the ground, agitated by his confinement. If “Kunstkamer” asks one thing of its audience it would perhaps be: what do you feel? Amass what you know, cast it to one side, and allow yourself to feel what it is you are experiencing.

David Hallberg in “Kunstkamer.” Photograph by Daniel Boud

An owl hoots. David Hallberg in his role of the “spirit, or the “Kunstkamer house keeper”3 slides to the floor, rhinoceros no longer. He shapeshifts. His character, on stage, not as artistic director, but as a dancer once more, is, as choreographer Sol León describes, “the essence, the knowledge, the love.” A magnetic ghost of many things. A spirit at one end of their journey, accompanied by their earlier shadow, corps de ballet’s Adam Elmes (on the Tuesday and Thursday performances and livestream event), and guest artist Jorge Nozal (the original spirit in NDT’s “Kunstkamer” in 2019, and on the opening night in Melbourne), guiding me through a world within a world. Cue: Beethoven.

“Kunstkamer” meshes together seamlessly the choreography of León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite, and Marco Goecke, and proves to be exactly what belongs inside a kunstkamer, a “room” of “art.” And however you choose to organise your own chamber of art, one guiding principle, that is true of this work, remains: the objects, in this case, dancers, within the room must transgress the borders between the different categories of the collection and in doing so defy fixed interpretation. Give voice to the “antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals.”[noteBarbara Gutfleish and Joachim Menzhausen, “How a Kunstkammer should be formed,” Journal of the History of Collections, 1989 Vol I: p. 11[/note] Be coral. Be crustacean, folded over with your pointed elbows in the air, scuttling, furiously. Be a singular musical note and a succession of notes within Lightfoot’s Bartók. Or a moonlit scene, like corphée, Lucien Xu.

Imogen Chapman and Jarryd Madden in “Kunstkamer.” Photograph by Prudence Upton

Divided into two parts, “Kunstkamer” pushes boundaries, speaks in a new language (for the company), plays with tension, while crowing like a cockerel with a nautilus shell for a rotund body supported by fine gilt legs.4 “Kunstkamer” is a fantastical and fast juxtaposition of science and art; natural and artificial illusion; order and disarray; domestic (cockerels) and exotic (rhinoceros); monstrous and wee; light and Dutch-picture-frame dark; a microcosm and the wider view; life and death; contained and free; the public façade and the private face; a piece and a whole. Held within an ingeniously simple, alternating, three-panelled set, designed by León and Lightfoot, that is both an imposing building and an intimate chamber, such is the nature of metamorphosis.

For me, where “Kunstkamer” differs to the historical understanding of a kunstkamer is its joyous inclusivity and creative sense of community. This work is not for the collector, singular, but for all. For the dancers, from corps de ballet to principal, like Lilla Harvey sparking alongside the life-cast specimen of Callum Linnane. For revealing and revelling in their role within the collection, as found in the delicious, claw-handed vortex of Goecke’s ‘Johann,’ gobbled up by senior artist, Dana Stephenson, alongside corphée, Timothy Coleman, and soloist Nathan Brook. For the individual and varied group ensembles, giving everyone the chance to be their own Brown four-eyed possum or Turret shell or the checkerboard wings of the Walking stick insect from the 18th-century illustrations within the four-volume catalogue of Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. An exquisite, rare generosity. Re-allocate! With everyone celebrating their own transformation from egg to caterpillar to the splitting of the chrysalis and the slow unfolding of wings, it seems wrong not to mention every single soul sharing the intensity that comes with a compressed timespan. For the orchestra playing music not typically associated with ballet, and squeezing in some favourites. As a photograph of the company in 1965, before their first European tour, materialises on the far wall, this is a celebration of the collective diversity of a ballet company, of the then ‘growing’ into the now, ‘Past and Present’.

The door to this “Kunstkamer” closes too soon. Remember me? Always.

  1. Pieter-Anton von Verschaffelt’s bronze cast model, A Rhinoceros called ‘Miss Clara’ (1738–1758), is one of many artworks inspired by Clara, https://barber.org.uk/german-school/, accessed June 6, 2022.
  2. Pietro Longhi’s painting, Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice (1751) is in the collection of the National Gallery in London, UK, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/pietro-longhi-exhibition-of-a-rhinoceros-at-venice, accessed June 6, 2022.
  3. Alexia Petsinis, “Master Cast,” “Kunstkamer” Melbourne programme, The Australian Ballet, 2022, p. 45
  4. A Drinking Vessel in the Shape of a Cockerel/Hen from a kunstkamer now in the collection of what evolved into a giant modern-day kunstkamer, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, https://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/87259/, accessed June 12, 2022.

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