Australian Dance Theatre
Queen Elizabeth Hall
The dancers of ADT are truly fearless. They think nothing of launching horizontally into the air for fleeting seconds before plummeting to the floor and into a chain reaction of knee-spinning, shoulder-standing, body-flipping moves. This is modern dance as an extreme sport, and the adrenaline-fuelled athleticism comes thick and fast in Birdbrain, ADT’s techno-take on Swan Lake.
Director Garry Stewart has deconstructed the classic ballet, stripping out plot, character, history and themes of lust, love and betrayal, to be played with at whim. He signposts the dancers’ functions with boldly labelled t-shirts saying ‘corps’, ‘lover’ and ‘forest’, a device that enables him to set up a witty duet between ‘peasant joy’ and ‘royal disdain’. It’s like Swan Lake told by Baz Luhrmann but minus the chintzy art direction. In this case, this stage set is austere, and the soundtrack cold, relentless techno.
Much venerated traditions are affectionately mocked, like the cult of the ballerina and the famous 32 fouettes. There’s a body popping Prince Siegfried, Baron Rothbart played as an unnerving contortionist, and a dance of the cygnets that becomes a tangle of muscular limbs weaving every which way.
There’s no straightforward narrative, and as befits a story of identity theft and dual personalities, the dancers play multiple roles, but many of the original elements remain. And there’s even some ballet. Stylised, ballet voguing you might call it, but beautifully executed nonetheless.
Yoga, gymnastics, capoeira and contemporary dance are also thrown into the mix and although each dancer’s body is radically different they match one another for power and punch. Larissa McGowan in particular comes out flying, and can switch from fighting kick to stealthy balance in an instant. But this is a company performance, and a very tight one at that.
The fragmented nature of the piece, and its chilly atmosphere, makes Birdbrain more awesome than engaging, but amid the physical onslaught there are some incredibly effective moments. The final scene for example, when a desperate Odette throws herself literally into the arms of the lake, shows that Stewart has not siphoned off all the drama.
In fact, one could argue that this dim, doomed passion is a much more apt portrayal of the story than the usual tutued prettiness. Although completely different to Matthew Bourne’s reworking, Birdbrain also reveals the viciousness and tenderness of the tale from beneath a knowing, post-modernist veneer. And like Bourne’s version, this too is deservedly a huge hit.