Review: The Australian Ballet with Bangarra Dance in Rites & Les Presages at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 7 - 11 Oct 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 8 October 2008

This important visit of The Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre to Sadler’s Wells is significant for two very different reasons; in a sense it shows both sides of the coin in the influences that have shaped Australian dance.

*Les Présages* is a wonderful example of the touring Ballet Russe influence in establishing ballet in Australia, having been first performed in Adelaide by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1936; but it is well and truly trumped for historical impact by Stephen Page’s ten year-old version of *The Rite of Spring* _simply entitled _*Rites*; a majestic collaboration between The Australian Ballet and Page’s own company, Bangarra (meaning “to make fire” in the indigenous language of New South Wales) Dance Theatre. Although not formed until the late 1980s, the dance styles that Bangarra draws upon have their roots through 40,000 years of the Australian Indigenous people’s development. I imagine that this Rites and the landmark it represents in the cultural integration of the European and Indigenous composition of Australia has the same emotional resonance as Cathy Freeman’s 400m victory in the Sydney Olympic Games.

In addition to representing the origins of ballet in Australia, British balletomanes had their own selfish reasons for coveting this performance of *Les Présages*, since it is the first of Massine’s innovative series of symphonic ballets (set to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony) and it hasn’t been seen here, I’m fairly sure, since the 1940s. It tells a loose story of man’s struggle with his destiny over four movements using a robust palette of dance, posture and gesture that is strongly influenced by the brutalism of the times and the body shapes and control of Martha Graham, with whom Massine worked in the early ’30s. It offered a host of strong virtuosic roles to test the daring attack of The Australian Ballet’s dancers, amongst whom Daniel Gaudiello was outstanding in the first movement; Adam Bull and Olivia Bell shared an excellent slow, passionate pas de deux in the second; and Leanne Stojmenov rattled off fast, accurate steps in the third. One or two roles seemed undercast but I gather that at least one injury had forced a late change. For me, it was a huge pleasure and privilege to see this seminal Massine work: apart from Birmingham Royal Ballet’s lone stewardship of *Choreartium* – another of his Symphonic series, very little of Massine’s prodigious choreographic output is available to us, these days.

There are, of course, many stunning versions of The Rite of Spring, another of which (by Pina Bausch) was seen on this stage earlier in the year, but this Rites is so different from any other. The indigenous, aboriginal influences in Page’s choreography and in the fascinating, unique movement of the Bangarra dancers, led by the superb Patrick Thaiday, creates a mesmerising sequence of scenes. Page uses his dancers in separate groups through the passages of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water, building up a momentum of tribal energy that teleports us from an Islington auditorium in 2008 to the outback of a thousand years ago. The ochre-tinged bodies of the tribe grow dustier and damper as the rituals progressively envelope them.

It would be foolish to try to compare versions but there is something uniquely Australian about Page’s choreography. Forget Waltzing Matilda or even Strictly Ballroom, this Rites could – and should – be the National Dance of Australia. It was truly unforgettable.

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