When dance troupes tour here, it is often to prove themselves. New Yorkers are known for being a tough sell: we see a lot. But our tastes may have less to do with heavy exposure than with the nervous system the city builds up – which, from the evidence of the Australian Ballet’s first programme this week, is the opposite of Melbourne’s.
The evening began with a movie trailer spliced between live titbits mainly from the classics. Despite the bullet-proof narrator (“This is a story of guts and determination”), the footage from the company’s 1960s beginnings – hefty Australians suffering cramped studios for the sake of their effete art – was adorable. The live dancing less so. The dancers lacked rapport with the music – a New York essential, given Balanchine. In these showy excerpts, they seemed both stolid and vague.
Wayne McGregor – resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet – is less musically wired than kinetically so, though the two often work together. A mesmerising circuitry of impulses runs through his dancers’ bodies, then takes on volume in the patterns they forge in space. But it is not part of conventional ballet training to learn to squiggle the spine like a camel’s neck, and the 12 dancers in Dyad 1929 – a 2009 Australian Ballet commission that complements Dyad 1909, for McGregor’s own troupe, Random Dance – could not manage it. The dance, with its simultaneous solos, trios and duets, looked as lightweight as confetti in the wind.
Only the final dance, Stephen Page’s Waramuk – In the Dark Night, brought out the performers’ strengths. A collaboration with the aboriginally inflected Bangarra Dance Theatre, Waramuk consisted of swishy, swirly movement, an overblown movie-soundtrack score and woefully vague evocations of the wondrously precise creation stories that indigenous Australians discover in the stars. But it also featured Bangarra’s Elma Kris, from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.
Kris did not “project”, as we say of charismatic performers, so much as attend. Alertness emanated from her like an aura. Her rough electricity made it more apparent how the others glowed. They moved with the softness of petals or a baby’s kiss – a salving placidity that New York tends to eclipse.
Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake follows, from Friday until Sunday, lc.lincolncenter.org