Parliament House, with its towering flagpole topped with the Australian flag, represents the very essence of the nation's democracy. How can this icon be translated into the vision, the movement and the music of ballet?
It was Garry Stewart, artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre, who was approached to create a ballet about this Australian monument as a celebration for the centenary of the national capital.
"It really was an honour to be asked - for Robyn Archer to suggest the idea and then for David McAllister to agree to it," he says. "I think it's an important work in the context of the centenary of Canberra. Of course, I feel a certain responsibility in making something worthy of the building and the occasion."
From May 23 to 25, The Australian Ballet will bring its program, Symmetries, to the Canberra Theatre for four performances. The title is appropriate because the three contrasting works on the program - Stewart's new creation, Monument, the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain and George Balanchines' The Four Temperaments - all celebrate symmetry: the first, the architectural symmetry of a unique building and the others, the form and balance of the human body.
"I think it's really smart programming on David's behalf," Stewart says. "My initial thoughts about the project were that perhaps it's a daunting task to translate specific architectural principles into choreography. However, I also worked with Mary Moore who's an Adelaide-based theatre designer and we came up with the idea of projecting three-dimensional CAD animations of the architecture of the building during the performance. We see a replication of Parliament House being built: first the street plan around Parliament House, and then the great verandah and then the entrance and so forth and that eventuates in a fly through the whole building. So the focus is on the building itself, the materials, the structure - not necessarily the human dimension of the building which is a whole other story. But there is a moment in the work that references the sense of polemic and debate and discourse and the function of the House but the work doesn't set out to explore the human context of the building and its political and social function."
It's interesting to compare this approach to that of the story of another icon, the Sydney Opera House, in the 1995 opera, The Eighth Wonder by Alan John and Dennis Watkins, which is very much about the personalities and the politicking involved in the creation of a mythic building.
"Mary and I were very privileged to be shown through the house by its chief architect, Aldo Giurgola," Stewart says. "It was just extraordinary: the level of detail as he explained the interior design as well as the architecture. It gave us an incredible insight but also an appreciation of the building itself. Balletic principles are often based on symmetry and the principles of classicism and the building is extremely symmetrical and very, very classical with its marble and columns."
Stewart's interest in using a variety of media came into play as he developed Monument.
"For lighting we did a test with LED screens," he says, "but it didn't really work with bodies in time and space so we opted for rear projecting video which is a much softer and more diffused light source. It allows us to bring a replication of this specific building into the work. If that didn't exist the piece could really be about any building. It's very difficult to express the architectural formulations of a building into a dance piece. Dance does have its limitations and I've always been interested in using other media, particularly visual media like film and video in order to bring other discourses into the piece that work on a different level of meaning and thicken the meaning of the choreography."
I had imagined that Monument might be made up of very pure balletic movement but Stewart disagrees. "There's certainly a degree of complexity to the work," he says. "I think it follows the pathway of any idea that starts off as a simple concept and then builds and progresses in greater complexity as the concept is realised. In terms of the choreography it's very much based in classical ballet vocabulary. Both Lana Jones and Ingrid Gow are en pointe. I wouldn't necessarily call this piece 'modern dance'. For me the central nervous system of the work is classical although at times it might deviate to slightly different places."
Huey Benjamin wrote the music for Monument. "Huey's really brilliant," Stewart says. "He's written music for my work with the Australian Dance Theatre but he's also done pretty much all the scores to my ballet compositions for companies like the Royal Ballet Flanders and Birmingham Royal Ballet. He's had several decades of being immersed in dance and the response to his music within the company has been great. The dancers love the music. It's rhythmic and driving but not too forceful and it has a sense of monumentality but also a sense of emotion. There's something quite beautiful about the score that connects you to this sense of the almost spiritual symbolism of the building - to the aspirations of the population of a nation." The Canberra Symphony Orchestra and electronic composition will provide the music for the Canberra performances.
The original choice of the classical ballet, Etudes, to partner Monument in this program was re-thought by David McAllister.
"Garry's piece is such dense choreography," he says. In After the Rain, which is beautifully spare like the music [Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel] and so intimate, resonating with the architecture of the body, we have something like a hybrid of Monument and The Four Temperaments. It's like an oasis of calm between the other two pieces."
The Four Temperaments was described by Jill Sykes in her 2003 review of The Australian Ballet's performance of this piece as having "moody, mathematical choreography" to complement Paul Hindemith's music.
"And in this program we can have all of our principals dancing before the Canberra audience," McAllister adds.
Lana Jones returns to Canberra to dance in this program. "In a way there's always pressure to come home to the expectations of my family but there's a real warmth from Canberra audiences," she says. "This is my first time working with Garry and it's wonderful. There's no anxious energy around the room. He's tried to take different angles in his piece and it's very architectural with the projection at the back of the stage. He's given me a new movement vocabulary which is all very linear. He's so patient and generous with his knowledge."
The Australian Ballet brings Symmetries to the Canberra Theatre for four performances from May 23-25.
Bookings: 02 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.