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Samara Merrick and Adam Elmes in “Annealing” by Alice Topp for the Australian Ballet. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Forged in Dance

The Australian Ballet's triple bill

Performance
The Australian Ballet: “Obsidian Tear” by Wayne McGregor, “Annealing” by Alice Topp, “Everywhere We Go” by Justin peck
Place
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, September 27, 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

Miles underground, in the Earth’s mantle, Obsidian rock and Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear” begins. Originally commissioned by the Royal Ballet and Boston Ballet, premiering at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2016, it is now time for the volcano to erupt for its Australian premiere season at the State Theatre in Melbourne. Six years deep, all that heat and pressure, it has melted to form magma. Slowly rising from the cracks underground in the Earth’s crust, it collects in a holding chamber, but it can only do so for so long.

And it is in one such magma chamber that Tuesday’s performance takes place with Adam Elmes and Callum Linnane in a caress. As the pressure builds, the heat rises, and their bodies become liquescent. In the harmonic repeat of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Lachen verlernt, the top layer changes. The magma reaches the surface. It becomes lava, thanks to Sulki Yu’s violin solo.

As Elmes and Linnane curve and ripple around one another: is the story’s title in reference to a tear drop or the action of tearing something apart? Feeling for kinaesthetic cues: it is both. To be torn to pieces. Tear away, tear down, tear into. And tender, in a flash. A burst of movement: burst into tears. This is both intimate and explosive. As McGregor describes, “it is deliberately ambiguous. It is both seething and it is tearful. It is tearing through space and giving an emotional temperature.”1

Adam Bull, Adam Elmes, and Callum Linnane in “Obsidian Tear” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Jeff Busby

In an all-male cast of nine dancers, Adam Bull, Brett Chynoweth, Brodie James, Mason Lovegrove, Marcus Morelli, George-Murray Nightingale, and Lucien Xu, joining Elmes and Linnane, the feminine energy in the work stems from Nyx, the Greek Goddess (or personification) of the Night who emerged from Chaos. Nyx in Salonen’s symphonic poem as the shadows lengthen. To McGregor, “Nyx is all through the music.” In the obscurity, an open field, in which, as Salonen describes, “small innocuous things [can] grow into monstrous things” as the strings play in pizzicato.

Adam Elmes in “Obsidian Tear” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Jeff Busby

To mythology McGregor has tied the violence and brutality laid bare in reports of the executions of gay men by Islamic State militia. Hurled from the top of buildings, and stoned upon landing if they have not died upon impact, as one refugee recounts, “I was lucky to get out. I saved my soul. But what about them? Will they be lucky enough to survive? And, if they survive, will they recover from the trauma of being hunted?”2 As Elmes is branded, his fate is sealed. Deadly is the night, as the Greek poet Hesiod describes, as the lava flows out, cools, and hardens.

Dimity Azoury and Callum Linnane in “Annealing” by Alice Topp. Photograph by Jeff Busby

Alice Topp’s urgent new work “Annealing” debuts, accompanied by a score to change shape by Bryony Marks, and back into the extreme heat I go. The set, designed by Jon Buswell, like a large oven for annealing steel, copper, aluminium, and brass, may be hot, but it is in the sense of warmth, positivity, and inclusivity.

From Amy Harris and Bull’s exquisite opening pas de deux, I am here for all of it. Together Harris and Bull increase each other’s strength, hardness, formability, ductility, and elasticity, the heat treatments’ common objectives. Drawn to the idea that strength comes in many forms, as Topp relates, “through softening, we are finding our own strength in our voice and what it is to be you without what you think you need to be.” Removed from the roles of fairies, flowers, and swans, “we can be strong and sensitive, and masculine and feminine, and athletic and everything in the one, in the one quality.”3

Samara Merrick and Adam Elmes in “Annealing” by Alice Topp. Photograph by Jeff Busby

The heating and cooling of metal is a controlled action, and Grace Carroll, Elijah Trevitt, Coco Mathieson, and Hugo Dumapit, together with Harris and Bull, embody this wholeheartedly. In costumes evocative of metals in the various stages of the annealing process, designed by Kat Chan, they are joined in the furnace by artists of the company. Together, a cast shy of 50, make themselves a shimmering golden lattice of crystal structures. Metallic not just in appearance, and accompanying glorious rustling sound, but in movement, and gender-freeing and gender-empowering ethos.

The three-step process of annealing, from recovery through to recrystallization and grain growth, informs the three Acts. With the beautiful closing pas de deux, things cool down violet-blue to room temperature. No risk of cracking, were I a metal, but I am not. I cracked; I loved it.

Annabell Watt and Rohan Furnell in “Everywhere We Go” by Justin Peck. Photograph by Jeff Busby

From here, jumping into the prismatic world of Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go” (2014), set to an original score by Sufjan Stevens, I willingly go. Making its Australian debut, 25 dancers are invited and encouraged with “wit and humanity [to fill] in all of the open pockets, cracks, crevices,”4 finding the hexagonal shapes within bubbles that together form a series of repeating spheres. In a light, bright rearranging of geometric shapes in nine parts, Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, chime and vibrate as if bell and trumpet, together with Drew Hedditch, Joseph Caley, Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, Jill Ogai, and Imogen Chapman.

Billed as “Instruments of Dance,” to the dancer is there a better instrument than the body? And to the musician: instruments are an extension of the body. Movement and music in conversation from start to ping! Dance to be sound. Dance to be colour. Dance to be free. Dance to be.

  1. Wayne McGregor and Esa-Pekka Salonen in conversation with Clemency Burton-Hill (transcribed from video), “Wayne McGregor rehearses Obsidian Tear (The Royal Ballet),” Royal Opera House YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTz94o5-CR4, recorded May 12, 2016, accessed September 28, 2022
  2. “Why my own father would have let IS kill me,” BBC News, July 23, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33565055, accessed September 28, 2022
  3. Alice Topp (transcribed from video), ‘The inspiration behind Alice Topp’s new work “Annealing,” The Australian Ballet YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aeyrur6w5eY, recorded September 6, 2022, accessed September 28, 2022
  4. Justin Peck, “Everywhere We Go”, The Australian Ballet’s “Instruments of Dance” 2022 Melbourne program, 10