AB-KUNSTKAMER-photo-Jeff-BusbyIn an unequivocal history-making moment in The Australian Ballet’s existence, Kunstkamer will likely go down as a watershed in the way the company is perceived by both audiences and dancers alike.

With great indebtedness to Artistic Director David Hallberg’s innovative and courageous sensibility, Kunstkamer is, once seen, a never forgotten experience.

In a nutshell, Kunstkamer is a mesmerising and creatively outstanding experience, a wondrous world of surprises, delights and stupefying moments and an incredible feat of humankind’s abilities to cooperate and unite in dance. 

The work was born as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the famed Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). Premiered in October 2019, it was created under the direction of Paul Lightfoot and Sol León – a choreographic duo since 1989 who together have created more than fifty pieces for the company – along with NDT associate choreographers Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite. 

A pandemic, however, halted plans to tour the work. But here it is, serendipitously given the honour of being staged by the Australian Ballet, and the first time performed by a company beyond NDT. 

Literally meaning ‘room of art’, the inspiration for Kunstkamer derives from Dutch pharmacist, zoologist and collector Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, an extensive early 18th-century illustrated science volume.

Seba’s “cabinets of curiosities” collection ranked among the largest in Europe but he sold much of it to Peter the Great, who used it as the basis for the Kunstkammer in St Petersburg, Russia’s first museum.

On the one hand, experiencing Kunstkamer is not unlike being lured into and captivated by the entrancing and fanciful exhibits on display in a capacious museum. On the other, peering into an early box camera where focus is brought to evocative pinpoint clarity.

Both in its staging and choreography Lightfoot and León, who double as set designers, embed the performance with much anticipatory flavour and dramatically honed scenes set to an absorbing range of music from Purcell, Gluck, Beethoven and Bartók to the modern music of Arvo Pärt, Ólafur Arnalds, Janis Joplin and Jose Sandoval. 

A sprinkling of spoken word and song – the AB artists make quite the fine choir – as well as video projections form part of the wondrous effect. The result is a complete and superbly integrated package, danced to perfection by the AB artists. 

Overall, three minimally conceived neoclassical panelled walls incorporating an upper clerestory edge the stage with a central pediment at the rear to create the sense of ‘kamer’ or gallery.

Wings are concealed but a lengthy series of panel doors on all sides provide limitless opportunity for entrances and exits, all of which the dancers make with rhythmical timely interest and often bursting out with gusto. 

Side walls invariably shift to narrow or reshape the space, providing effective perspectives with original lighting design by Tom Bevoort, Udo Haberland and Tom Visser, adding slices of powerful weight and contrast over a predominantly darkened atmosphere of intrigue.

Joke Visser and Hermien Hollander’s mostly monochrome costumes outline and play with body movement, while etching the stage with lithographic-like imagery.

Lightfoot and León’s starting point feels perfectly suited to exploring the spectrum of movement and the synergy of art and being, as is utilising 4 choreographic minds to diversify the field. 

Overall, it might feel like the multifarious hallmarks of dance have been thrown into a blender and reconstituted to create its 18 sophisticatedly “curated” scenes – or a carnivalesque novelty of sorts. 

Presented in two parts, the audience is permitted to simply sit back and be hypnotised by each resulting “curiosity”. And that’s not to say those “curiosities” don’t elicit wide-ranging emotions and thoughts. Humour and sadness are just as much part of the deal as pleasure and awe.

Of course, the stars are the more than 40 dancers who dance the intimate solos and pas de deux up to the collective corps in gobsmacking physical disbelief. Movements that fracture classical dance and mechanize the modern with structural plasticity and sequenced precision are adroitly and effortlessly enacted to create a raft of evocative creatures, beings and ideas.

Part of the wonder is how the choreographer transforms their concept into something that each individual can replicate to create such beautifully paired angular and organic movement as a whole. 

Hallberg himself, putting retirement aside for the occasion, leads out the Archive in athletic, agile form with a sliding split and a comical “ouch” to go with it. Might he have denoted Seba?

And could the crowned duo who appeared in the exhilaratingly danced Overture be representative of the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia? There may be a simple narrative to hold onto after all in this handover of a collection and its piece by piece revealing exhibition.

Guest artist Jorge Nozal danced with excellence as a masked figure in Hallberg’s orbit to create mystery and magic. Principal artists Callum Linnane, Brett Chynoweth and Amy Harris made thrilling and compelling work of their appearances on opening night along with Lucien Xu and Lilla Harvey. 

But the commitment and concentration of each and every one of the heaving and swelling, synchronised corps was evident. Their highlights are many, including the closing of Part I, Beethoven, in which the composer’s Symphony No.9 in D minor never witnessed such gorgeously contoured and kinetically driven structure. 

Musically, every beat and tone was supported by a wealth of colour and texture in the pit by Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon AM.

The orchestra played splendidly and their workload stacked high with recent performances of Opera Australia’s La Traviata, Lohengrin and Mefistofele to their credit. Violin solos by Sulki Yu and Yi Wang were poignant, as was an on-stage piano solo and, of all things, a fabulously entrancing solo for tambourine. 

In Lightfoot and León’s Kunstkamer, no limit is placed on the strangeness of what appears next through the door and few words could describe how to expect the unexpected. But in the general silence of dance, we are sometimes richer for that as one artist’s imagination bores into our own. Not to be missed!

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 3 June 2022
Season continues to 11 June 2022
Information and Bookings: www.australianballet.com.au

Image: Artists of The Australian Ballet in Kunstkamer – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar