This year for its annual contemporary programme, the Australian Ballet hasn’t pulled any punches, offering a trio of works that push this company’s dancers to the furthest reaches of their abilities. From the brooding existentialism of Jiří Kylián to the razor-edged defiance of William Forsythe and the bright, polished optimism of Christopher Wheeldon, this triple bill of modern masterpieces traverses an ambitiously broad emotional and aesthetic spectrum. Equally assured is how this company has made this repertoire its own, and if there were moments where the refined, disciplined rigour of the Australian Ballet’s dancers imposed some less than authentic accents on this programme, the technical sophistication on offer was nonetheless impressive.

Set to Benjamin Britten’s hauntingly wrought Sinfonia da Requiem, Kylián’s Forgotten Land is a work of astonishingly direct pathos. Celebrating its 30th year in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, it’s a piece that this company knows well and the level of artistic empathy this close acquaintance offers is extremely rewarding for the audience.

Amber Scott, Lana Jones and Vivienne Wong in Forgotten Land (photo: Jeff Busby)

While not specifically narrative, Kylián is a master of dramatic intention. As a howling wind announces a vision of terra nullius, 12 figures slowly walk towards a bleak horizon, before the monolithic totem of Britten’s pounding timpani and rumbling brass compels the dancers into movement. Three couples champion distinct emotional imperatives: a sombre yet urgent pair dressed in black, a capricious, explosive couple in red and a pair representing purity and reflection, dressed in white. They illuminate a universe in limbo, poised between the familiar realism of the living world and the abstract oblivion of death. As each duet inches ever closer to the void, we are shown the plethora of our human response to the end of life: desperate fear, furious denial and the final, cathartic realisation that our fate is inevitable.

The brutality of the set’s desolate seascape offers an intriguing counterpoint to the sensuous intimacy of Kylián’s dance. There’s a clear vocabulary of gestures rooted in a deep sense of yearning: outstretched, reaching arms and grasping extensions that suddenly contract into tight, terrified hunches. With such a textured choreography, making this palette of separate moments coalesce into a larger architecture is a significant challenge of this piece, and this carefully managed fluency wasn’t always consistent in this account. However, the emotional sincerity delivered by this cast, in particular Vivienne Wong, Cameron Hunter, and principal artists Amber Scott and Adam Bull, was exceptionally potent.

Ako Kondo and Kevin Jackson in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (photo: Jeff Busby)

Next, we departed this viscerally rich world for one of pure precision. Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated can easily be counted among the most pivotal ballet works of the 20th Century. This piece, much like the American choreographer’s full-evening ballet, Artifact, eschewed the grandiloquent stereotype of classical ballet while revelling in the most technically extreme exploration of the art form, using ballet’s past to discover ballet’s future. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is a work of risk-taking, breakneck velocity and physical bravado that smashes all previously held notions – although one should not forget that Forsythe built this piece on the body of Sylvie Guillem, a dancer whose powers redefined our expectations of the human form.

The Australian Ballet’s performance was slick, but often safe, never quite allowing the acute angles and sharply inscribed lines of this piece to reach their furthest limits. That’s not to say there wasn’t much to admire here, however. Kevin Jackson continues to display a remarkable technical prowess, but his physicality has taken on an impressive strength in recent productions. Here, his robust yet supple frame gave Forsythe’s movement a powerful solidity that perfectly suited the bold directness this piece evokes.

Kevin Jackson and Robyn Hendricks in DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse  (photo: Jeff Busby)

Concluding the evening, Australian Ballet welcomed a new work into its repertoire. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse shares a similar glossy vim to the works of George Balanchine, although underpinned with an exciting leaning toward a more experimental vernacular of ballet. Taking its cue from the driving tempo of Michael Nyman’s minimalism, this dance crackles with a vibrant confidence. It celebrates a glorified vision of industrial accomplishment (even if the burnished metal set implies some sort of explosive accident), and like cogs and pistons in a vast, complex mechanism, the dancers buzz across the stage with a pleasing interconnectivity.

The Orchestra Victoria were occasionally thrown by Nyman’s asymmetrical rhythms and the inelegant density of his orchestration further added to the lack of musical clarity, but on stage the accuracy was pinpoint. Featuring four excellently delivered pas de deux, the intense agility and stirring romance of this piece are irresistibly uplifting; the kind of dance that quickens the pulse, drops the jaw and pulls you to the edge of your seat.


The Australian Ballet present Vitesse at the Arts Centre Melbourne until March 21. It tours to the Sydney Opera House from April 26 until May 16.