In "Rites," a smoldering treatment of the natural elements that closed the Australian Ballet's program this weekend, the dancers are barefoot, half naked and slathered in body paint. They prowl the stage with an animal hunger.
It's not what you'd expect from a ballet company. But that's exactly the point.
In forging this collaboration between his classically trained dancers and those of the Aboriginal-inspired Bangarra Dance Theater, Australian Ballet Artistic Director Ross imposing, alert figure rising over the dusty bodies of the rest of the cast, the audience at George Mason University's Center for the Arts was on its feet.
Created by Aboriginal choreographer Stephen Page, "Rites" interprets Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" ballet score as an exploration of earth, wind, fire and water, bracketed by episodes titled "Awakening" and "Dreaming." The theme is drawn from the Aboriginal myth of creation, a belief that the elements are living spirits. One could say Page didn't so much choreograph the work as unleash it, so vivid are his images of slithering wildlife, blustering breeze and searing heat.
In his unlikely union, Page achieved three things. First, he seamlessly interwove the greyhound-sleek ballet dancers with the more earthy dancers of the Bangarra troupe, which Page directs and which takes its inspiration from Aboriginal and urban street movement.
Second, Page refreshed the Stravinsky score, so tied to its original dark, pounding interpretation of pagan Russia by Vaslav Nijinsky. He took an oftentimes lighter approach, emphasizing the music's mystery.
Third, the result is wholly original, something new sprung from the improbable merger of the rugged outback and high European culture.
This is the company's first visit to Washington under the direction of Stretton, a former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer. Presumably he wanted to make a sharply different impression after the classically based programs of past tours. However, the two works that preceded "Rites" were disappointments.
William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," is, like, so '80s. Created in 1987, it's one of those pieces where the rear stage wall is exposed, the dancers wear a nonchalant assortment of leotards and tights and proceed to show us how hard-bodied and super-stretched they are. The soundtrack by Thom Willems consists of sharp, eruptive clangings that grow nearly deafening over the course of the work.
You get Forsythe's message early--he's conceived a coolly detached super-race, which can split its legs like scissor blades and sizzle like an electric current. But though one can admire the dancers' flexibility, to my mind their efforts boil down to acrobatic tricks thrown in for the "jeez, would ya look at that" effect. Forsythe, an American who has made his career in Germany with the Frankfurt Ballet, has created other works that develop, that establish focal points, that go beyond posturing and sneering at the audience, but this isn't one of them.
Stephen Baynes's "At the Edge of Night" gets a great deal of help from the seven romantic Rachmaninoff preludes that accompany it. Yet as a nostalgia trip through a woman's past, it is only partly successful. For every tender bit of partnering, there's an awkward lift or strained transition. One segment, a needless bit of bravura for three men, didn't fit at all. Baynes is working with a much-used idea, and he has little new to add.
The dancers, however, looked smashing in it. They underplayed the sentimentality and employed their extraordinary suppleness to underscore an aching image of youthfulness. Michael Pearce designed an evocative set (a plain chair and door overhung with fragments of picture frames) and costumes (high-waisted trousers for the men and 1940s-era dresses for the women, all in taupe, gray and ivory). Stuart Macklin was the attentive pianist.