Project Rameau: a painter's review

I am writing this blog while on one of those highs you get after seeing something completely compelling and artistically inspiring. Tonight I went with my studio friends Deevya and Andrea to “Project Rameau”, a collaboration between Sydney Dance Company and The Australian Chamber Orchestra. But justification for my gushing will follow in a moment.


2013 has been a year to see dance performances for me. With Li Cunxin (of “Mao's Last Dancer” fame) taking over the reins at Queensland Ballet, a season pass seemed a good idea. It seemed that way to lots of other people too, apparently, because the company has enjoyed a bumper season with performances of Cinderella and Giselle. And the Bolshoi Ballet came to Brisbane with “The Bright Stream”, that I was fortunate enough to see last month. All three were thoroughly professional performances of course. Perhaps an expert would find a technical superiority in the renowned Bolshoi, but for me as a non-expert, Queensland Ballet was every bit as impressive. In fact, I preferred the music and choreography in the latter (particularly Giselle), and so enjoyed them more. Also, I was lucky enough to see Rachel Walsh in the lead for both QB performances – she is a strikingly charismatic presence and powerful dancer – exuding a strength that captures my attention and that comes through regardless of the character she plays (she felt as compelling playing the shy Giselle as the fiery Carmen in a previous year).


My interest in dance, that has grown over the last few years, has been motivated in large part by its link to painting of course. I find it strange that more figurative artists are not more interested in dance. It is, after all, a language of the figure that is at its best both literal and intangible: a poetic language of gesture and form, and both abstract and narrative context. Classical ballet, with its emphasis on grace, brings out shapes in the figure (particularly the arabesque and rhythmic counterbalance) that are precisely match those of classical painting and sculpture. And I have to like the fact of the unseen apprenticeship – long and gruelling - that dancers must go through, the sheer grit of it. And the love that they must have to be willing to endure it, all for the sake of making the near impossible look effortless – much as good painters strive to do.


But, as much as I admire and enjoy Classical Ballet, the performance tonight of “Project Rameau” has really captured my imagination as a work of art. I won't pretend to know about the execution: needless to say, the ACO and Sydney Dance Company are among the very best in their field. But since I am an expert in neither Classical music nor contemporary dance, I can only say that I found the performances quite flawless. My aim here is to investigate the artistic integration of the music, choreography and design of the piece, and it's relation to painting composition.


Drawing the figure in the classical sense, is not copying. It is an attempt at integration, a kind of improvisation and simplification in real time, that brings together gesture and body language, anatomy, design, form and character. For me, the language of line is primary – and in a good line, all those aspects are juggled successfully, at an intuitive level in the brain of the artist. There is an intensity of intention that must be present for it to work, there must be a formal story to be told. And this improvisation must be studied and done repeatedly to achieve and maintain fluency, and to take the formal towards a certain sensibility, that intangible language. Painting composition, in the visionary spirit of the old masters (which is where my main interest lies) is essentially the same but with more parameters and variables – choice of subject, tonal design and light, colour and texture, scale and medium. From beginning to end, good painting is a process of creative integration of elements such that the alchemy of their mixture makes the gold the artist was grasping for: the gestalt, the intangible story.


At “Project Rameau”, we were lucky enough to have literally front row seats, to the right side of the stage (best in house in my opinion, though strangely not the most expensive – why you would want to be further back for a show like this is beyond me: it's not TV, people). The orchestra was at the back of the stage, slightly elevated, with a minimalist stage design, archways abstracted into precise, thin lines framing them, perhaps a subtle reference to the clean, one point perspective spaces of Fra Angelico or Pierro della Francesca. Lighting was simple and strong, often using 180 degree side lighting, that modelled the forms of the dancers' bodies beautifully. With the skin against the darkness and dark costumes, the image reminded me at times of the low, major key of Caravaggio.


The music of Rameau was apparently composed as theatre music (intended to be interpreted physically), and the selections (along with some Vivaldi and Bach) were chosen with a great variety in tempo and mood across a succession of short pieces. Now, one of the things I like most about choreographer Rafael Bonachela's work, in this and other works, is how he works with dancers to develop novel movements, and the logic as we the audience see them established in relation to the music and then repeated and developed. This logic of formal qualities, development, and counterpoint sits snuggly with that of the Baroque composers. It meant that each piece of music in “Project Rameau” felt to me a bit like an individual painting, the whole performance a series of connected but individual images. There was the sense of movements and poses exquisitely matched in a primarily formal sense, and thoroughly enjoyable to see executed, again with Baroque exuberance. Implied narrative (romantic encounters, competition between suitors and similar stories) were vaguely represented (Bonachela intentionally limits narrative in his work) but only to set the context, with an emphasis on the formal poetry.


This emphasis on musicality, on the formal linkage between the music and the movement, rather than narrative, meant that each piece seemed, at least to me, less linearly temporal than dance often is. In contrast to dance, one of the beautiful aspects of paintings is their immediacy as a whole, they exist all at once, as opposed to the temporal nature of writing, music or acted arts, allowing the viewer to wander and investigate the image in their own way. In this performance, with each of the “pictures” unified by the particular piece of music, and the start and end less important, I experienced them a bit more like a painting, being able to wander through the scene in my own way, rather than needing to follow a prescribed sequence. This is where the staging was so relevant, with the orchestra beautifully lit and forming the background of the dancers, while the dancers themselves varied between soloists, duets, and groups that were sometimes synchronised and sometimes in detailed counterpoint across the group, (another rhyme to the baroque.)


Of course, in the end, it is the truth to the human experience that brings the formal to life. For me, there was a sense of “rightness” of this integration too – moments of dramatic or touching sensitivity, as well as exhilarating excitement (for example, the Summer Presto from Vivaldi's Four Seasons), toe tapping baroque dance as well as just the right kind of humour and lightheartedness. And Bonachela managed to walk the line between baroque confidence, elegance and exuberance and the more modern flavours of edgy, animalistic movement, pop culture reference and resolved dissonance.


I am left with the sense of these two great companies achieving a truly admirable integration of artistic ideas, and exposing and re-imagining some music that deserves to be heard by a contemporary audience. I hope that the collaboration is continued next year...