Energy consumed, spent, and utterly glorious


The Australian Ballet
Monday 20th March, 2017
Tuesday 21st March, 2017
State Theatre

Choreography and production: David Bintley
Guest Repetiteur: Patricia Tierney
Music: Matthew Hindson
Costume Designs: Becs Andrews
Setting and lighting design: Peter Mumford

Choreography: Tim Harbour
Music: Michael Gordon Weather One
Set design: Kelvin Ho
Lighting design: Benjamin Cisterne
Soundscape designer: Tony David Cray
Keto Dancewear by Peggy Jackson

Choreography: Wayne McGregor
Guest Repetiteur: Neil Fleming Brown
Music: Max Richter
Set designs: Julian Opie
Costume designs: Moritz Junge
Lighting design: Lucy Carter
Sound design: Chris Ekers

Human Engine, my response to the The Australian Ballet’s contemporary triple bill, Faster, drawn up especially for Fjord Review.

See below the line. Look beyond the surface. Delve beneath the city. Peer underneath the skin. Vide infra. What makes us tick, and ultimately what holds us together, piece by splintered piece.

Drawing its name from the Latin word for ‘below,’ Infra (2008) surveys the internal. This work is a part of the body, within the body; this work is the human condition. Infrarenal. Wayne McGregor invites us to look at the “interior emotional landscape”[i] by observing and drawing inferences from the data on the stage, in turn calling upon our own emotions. The choreographic language is both felt and distinctly human. Beneath the surface of both city and skin, the binding agent is similar.

Segmented by an LED screen that runs the length of the stage, two letterboxed worlds are presented. Above the line, visual artist Julian Opie’s flow of uniform pedestrians are an unwavering rhythm. From the left and right they flow in a mesmerising pattern that is both soothing and indifferent. If you stumble, assistance is unlikely; you’ll merely disturb the pattern. Simplified to the core — a circle for a head, a block for a torso, a rectangle for a briefcase — they are in stark contrast to the activity below the line. The twelve dancers from the Australian Ballet, beneath the ‘unreal city,’ reveal deep inward feelings. Below the line, within the body, visceral and real, and with a capacity to feel, ache, and sometimes break. The binding agent is fragile.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.[ii]

Looking up at the projection of walking figures, the physical informs the emotional, and I, too, perceive I am below the line. The figures comprised of pixels, to paraphrase McGregor,[iii] are the view beyond the theatre’s walls. In the subterranean world of the State Theatre, they not only mimic but are also the street-view procession currently masked by theatre rigging. If I were to remove a couple of bricks and peep out, this endless foot traffic is what I’d see. Moreover, this endless foot traffic is steadfast in the face of devastation on both a small and a large scale. That patterns shortly altered inevitably resume, and ultimately the world keeps turning when you go under, is perhaps one of the hardest emotions to fathom. To me, this was exquisitely embodied by Vivienne Wong (Monday 20th March) and Dimity Azoury (Tuesday 21st March) as they fell to the floor in silent grief. As the stream of passers-by threatens to erode them into the ground, they rise, and resume their tread. Self-reliance never felt so weighted and lonely.

After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying[iv]

Like the loop of language in The Waste Land, in the dark light of the city, Infra gives shape to feelings and builds upon them. Through its essence, I relate, emotionally, to the dancers, even though there is also a line between those on the stage and those seated in the audience. Just as Opie’s thin slice of the everyman/woman going about their business guides my focus through showing only what is needed, so too McGregor’s choreography erased to the essentials. This perceived simplicity through refinement is further reflected in the strings and piano of Max Richter’s music. A score that is brilliantly interrupted, quite literally, it feels, by the electric charge of Kevin Jackson (Monday) and Cristiano Martino’s (Tuesday) solos on their respective nights. Jackson taps himself into the mains, and consumes the lyrical current, increasing the static and white noise.

Teasingly, when plunged in light wells that echo an illuminated train carriage or windows in an apartment block, my eye tries in vain to take in all of the couples at the one time. My eye flits from Adam Bull, Leanne Stojmenov, Robyn Hendricks, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, and Alice Topp (Monday) to Jake Mangakahia, Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Dana Stephensen (Tuesday).

Tim Harbour blistering new work, Squander and Glory, demonstrates, as does McGregor, that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul”.[vi] Harbour’s ‘violet hour’ is also one of ‘the broken fingernails of dirty hands.’ To Michael Gordon’s chaotic swirl of ‘Weather One,’ there is a sense of a conversation between the dancers on the stage and the audience in the theatre. This inclusivity and directness is heightened when the house lights come on part way through the piece. Surplus energy must be dissipated; “lost without profit…. willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically”.[vii] Through choreographic distillation and hours of training, Harbour’s ‘accursed share’ is energy that must be spent in the creation of a work or a performance. A necessary excess, the hours in the studio culminate into an explosion of movement on the stage.

Expenditure and waste are the main features of the general economy on which Georges Bataille wrote, and when applied to dance (like Eliot on poetry), from hours of training and choreographic distillation, the ‘accursed share’ is energy that must be spent in the creation of a work or a performance on stage, a necessary excess. The hours in the studio culminate into a handful of minutes upon the stage, so too a book on political economy is transformed into an explosion of movement.

Upon the stage, fourteen dancers become twenty-eight, when doubled by a floor to ceiling mirror. Harbour has teamed once again with Kelvin Ho to artfully manipulate the familiar. With considered lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, sometimes the reflected dancers seem more ‘real’ than the dancers themselves, and all together the ‘simple’ return is breath-taking.

McGregor’s Infra and Harbour’s Squander and Glory, were presented alongside David Bintley’s athletic celebration, Faster (2008), as part of the Australian Ballet’s contemporary triple bill. Each of the works are monuments to the throbbing ‘human engine’. Energy consumed, spent, and utterly glorious. Hold the curtain; let me stay below ground.


[i] Wayne McGregor in interview with Kate Scott, ‘Athletic Animals’, The Australian Ballet’s Faster Melbourne and Sydney programme, 2017, p. 12.

[ii] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, The Poetry Foundation website.

[iii] ‘Wayne McGregor on creating Infra for The Royal Ballet,’ Royal Opera House YouTube video, uploaded 11th November, 2008.

[iv] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.

[vi] Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophy of Language’, cited in David R. Cerbone, ‘(Ef)facing the Soul: Wittgenstein and Materialism,’ Seeing Wittgenstein Anew, ed. William Day and Victor J. Krebs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 154.

[vii] Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share, cited by Tim Harbour, programme notes for Squander and Glory.


Faster is produced in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet. This production was first performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre on 27th June, 2012. 

Infra was originally commissioned by The Royal Ballet and had its premiere at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 13th November, 2008.


Image credit: Artists of the Australian Ballet performing in Harbour’s Squander and Glory by Jeff Busby