When one of the world’s most revered living choreographers, Sol Leon, told David Hallberg, “I don’t like dance when it’s just entertainment,” he nodded in recognition.
Hallberg, The Australian Ballet’s star artistic director, has announced a big coup for the company for 2022: they will be the first in the world allowed to recreate Kunstkamer, a vast, challenging contemporary work by the Nederlands Dans Theatre, co-choreographed by Leon.
David Hallberg with Dimity Azoury and Callum Linanne in costumes from Kunstkamer.Credit:Simon Schluter
It is a daring interpretation of a “cabinet of curiosities,” the centuries-old concept of collecting at the intersection of science and art, putting unrelated specimens next to each other to inspire new meaning. Its styles range from poetic pas de deux to intricate modern movement; its music puts Beethoven with Janis Joplin with Arvo Pärt.
Hallberg is desperately keen for Australia to see it – he started negotiating even before he was officially given the job last year.
“I think dance and art can be entertaining, but equally demanding,” he says. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way, like we have to put our audience to the test. But I really believe that what we present is not just entertainment, it gives them a quality of art. With Kunstkamer this is exactly that.
“It will entice, it will challenge, it will humour. It will push, it will pull – not only the audiences but the dancers… this is the kind of work that I think audiences should be seeing the company dance. This really robust piece of art.
Instruments of Dance will see The Australian Ballet perform a triple bill of contemporary work.Credit:Simon Eeles
“The Australian Ballet should be dancing the best of the world.”
When he told the company they would be doing Kunstkamer they erupted into applause, he says.
“This is on the choreographic bucket list.”
It’s been a hard year for the company, though they won an exemption from lockdown to continue to train.
“Spirits are positive, but [they] haven’t always been positive,” says Hallberg. “It’s been a hard couple of months. The dancers are no different from the population of Melbourne, or Sydney, a city that has gone through a hard lockdown. The engagement, that’s what was so difficult. The engagement with, the interaction with people, we’ve been deprived of that as a society and as a company.”
Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo will dance The Australian Ballet’s classic Romeo and Juliet.Credit:Pierre Toussaint
There was a silver lining. With Hallberg stuck in Melbourne, unable to do many of the jobs or travel an artistic director would usually do, he was able to “get my hands dirty” and sink his teeth into training the dancers.
About two months ago he started taking 12 dancers at a time for two-week boot camps where he refined their technique, giving them pointers he’d learned through his illustrious career on stages from New York to Russia, down to the little details of how to hold the fingers. He’s just finished with the men, and started with the women dancers this week.
They will be in better form than ever for the Ballet’s 2022 season, announced on Tuesday.
The season includes three “rescued” pieces dating back to the pandemic-crushed plans of Hallberg’s predecessor, David McAllister: the visual feast of Anna Karenina, the family fun of Harlequinade, and the company’s repertoire favourite Romeo and Juliet.
Hallberg says he didn’t program them “clenching my jaw” – they were included “out of respect” for McAllister, from a sense of responsibility for the investment put into them by the company, but “above all that these are really important works and they preserve the beauty and the future of ballet”.
And there was plenty of scope to put his own stamp on the season: Instruments of Dance is billed as a “thrilling exploration of the contemporary dance landscape,” a showcase triple bill of work from American choreographer Justin Peck set to a score by Sufjan Stevens, a contemplative piece by Britain’s Wayne McGregor, and a new work by the company’s resident choreographer Alice Topp.
And Hallberg says he is “95 per cent there” finding a date for his ambitious festival Dance X, which will see the country’s top dance companies come together for a thrilling combined series of performances.
“Call me stubborn,” says Hallberg. “We’re making this happen.”
2022 season packages go on sale Wednesday at australianballet.com.au.
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