The Australian Ballet and The State Opera Company of South Australia, combine forces for this latest work. The title suggests many things; life and death; lust and chastity; piety and paganism. These initial suggestions were reinforced by the well published choice of music for the piece, namely Faure's "Messe de Requiem Op 48" and Orff's "Carmina Burana". Surely with such well known pieces of music, the work must succeed. Well I was feeling trepidation as I entered the auditorium, the words of the press release etched in my mind: "Sacred and Profane is a massive project involving more that 150 dancers and singers on stage." Since the State Opera Co has 120+ singers, would the audience even notice the dancers ?
The piece opens with "Sacred", choreographed by Stephen Baynes who is well known to Australian audiences, both as performer and choreographer. The score is obviously "Requiem". Performed by 14 couples, all predictably dressed in black, each costume being slightly different. One of the girls wears a unitard with a see through frock over, others wear knee length outfits. You get the idea. There is one extra dancer, the almost legendary Valrene Tweedie. The piece opens in silence as the cast move down stage, turn around and move up stage. There were about 40 people on stage; I could identify the dancers by their shoes, intermixed with some of the chorus.
The music starts, and the chorus take their place at the back of the stage. The orchestra pit is full to bursting, as there is a large part of the chorus squeezed in back (and an organ too). I could quickly tell we were in for a plotless ballet. There is much running about as the back and side drops fall. These are white at the bottom graduating to black at the top, reminiscent of the shading one when a light is shone at the base of a light coloured wall. These drops form a box around the 15 dancers. Could this represent the tunnel of light that is reportedly seem at the moment of death, or when you have an OOBE ?
As far as I can tell (and remember I have an overactive imagination), Miss Tweedie is at the moment of death and is remembering her past life and loves. After a very slow start in which the dancers run around the stage, which what seems little purpose, the piece really gets going with a pd6, which circles the older person. Generally all the pdd's were very strong, especially the centre one which was danced (I think) by Simone Goldsmith and Robert Curran. This featured some very dramatic and fast lifts and swoops. The energy level by the performers was very high. I generally liked the piece, although I felt it lacked cohesion. Each individual section was nice in its own right, but nothing seemed to be no common thread between the movements, unless one counts the occasional light contact with the aged person.
The lighting design was simple; sometimes the back dissolved so we could see part of the chorus, or the baritone (Michael Lewis) and the soprano (Jennifer Kneale); both seemed in fine voice, but I am no opera goer, so I could be wrong. The lighting design did not get in the way of the performance, which seems to happen so often these days. The world did not move for me while watching the piece, unlike when I see Ashton's "Symphonic Variations", Balanchine's "Symphony in C" or Pepita's "Swan Lake". I quite liked it, but at times I did end up watching the chorus in the pit. A sure sign that I was getting bored.
The second half titled "Profane", was danced to "Carmina Burana". I rate this piece of music along side Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"; played sooo often that it was become boring to listen to, especially the opening movement. As I was waiting for the piece to start, I noticed the surtitle equipment situated above the stage. Could this be the first time that a ballet has been presented with surtitles ? Perhaps some of the more learned readers can answer that question. Luckily I was in the front row, so I couldn't see them unless I went out of my way to look at them. I think being able to read them would have been both very distracting and cause information overload.
The curtain rises to a view of a stage full of people; the entire chorus are on stage. How will they fit the dancers in as well ? The set consists of four long, white translucent boxes which are moved around the stage to disseminate the movements of the piece. There are five similar boxes spanning the ceiling. Sometimes they are illuminated, sometimes not. Sometimes the cast stand on them, sometimes they stand by them.
The dancing took a definite back seat to the vocal score in this case. It was more like watching an opera performance than a ballet performance. I felt there was far too little dance and much, to much chorus, even though they are very fine singers. Choreography is by Natalie Weir (resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet) and the Director is Lindy Hume (well known in the opera world I am assured); clearly Miss Hume was in the driving seat!
Steven Heathcote danced the principal role, and his performance is mirrored by Michael Lewis singing the same role. It is quite obvious that they are one and the same character. This is an obvious but effective device.
For the prologue the boxes are down the sides of the stage, the chorus filling the space between. All are dressed in "normal" street clothes; a scout leaders uniform, suites, joggers, combat pants, etc. all reflecting society. The dancers are interspersed and are easy to spot; the shoes and closed mouths being a give away.
For the first movement, the boxes are pushed close together lengthwise and a large plastic curtain bisects them. As to what this all means is quite beyond me. Perhaps it means nothing and I am searching too deeply. This movement serves to introduce both singer and dancer to the audience and to display the chorus. The second movement ("Springtime") sees the first pdd with the man and the first of several "Girl in the Red Dress". At this point the dress is quite demure as is the movements. Here I am using the title of the movement to take it to mean that he as just started his first "proper" courtship. Nicole Rhodes danced the role with just the right amount of frailty (well as far as one could glimpse through the throng).
For the third movement ("On the lawn") the boxes are pushed into a U shape with the chorus in the centre. My immediate thoughts were that of a fashion models runway. I was proven correct as several "Girls in Red Dresses" parade down in the best tradition of a fashion shoot. Even the costumes had the correct haute couture look; fabulous to look at but impossible to wear. All of the daily press have featured a photo of the lady dressed in a frock split to the hip, her leg high above the man's shoulder as he supports her behind. An obviously sexy picture to try to get Joe Public's bum on a seat. It is from this pdd that the image appears. This was a tango which started off quite sensuous and degenerates to violence. Lynette Wills is ideal for this role, being an extremely leggy dancer. With the chorus effectively fenced off, one could actually see the dancing!
For the fourth movement ("In the tavern"), the ceiling boxes descend and the others form an open box. This features Grant Smith (tenor) en travesti as the hooker. Quite convincing too and the audience had a good laugh at this point. Naturally another red dress features heavily in the symbolism. For the final movement ("The court of love") the chap is dying (well portrayed by both dancer and singer) and the so called angel figure appears. She was sung by Jennifer Kneale. I did not find her particularly angelic; it is well known that most angels are men, just think of Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Cassiel. There are countless others.
I did not see his life portrayed as being especially "profane". Yes he has several affairs and gets himself involved in a bar brawl (which was very well danced by the 10 or so chaps), but the life was neither different from many peoples or especially interesting. I would have liked to have been able to identify with the featured man, but nothing mirrored my experiences. So having watched a night of basically opera, I left the theatre someone dissatisfied. I prefer much less singing and much more movement in my ballet. The production is slick but I felt empty.