Just one week after performing Manon at the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, the Australian Ballet are back performing a high energy, and high skill, contemporary triple bill. It begins with Chroma, the title piece of the show, followed by Art to Sky and the combined Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

Chroma is a Wayne McGregor choreography, first performed in 2006 as his breakthrough piece with the Royal Ballet. It has since been taken up by companies around the globe, a technically striking piece that will never get old. It has set the bar for contemporary performance. 

The dancers are enclosed in a minimalist box that engulfs the stage. It is stark white, clinical, and those inside it have been stripped of excess as well. They are wearing floaty tube tops that barely cover their bottoms, hanging on with tight thin straps and in light pastel colours. The dancers’ dainty dress is no reflection of the dancing to come.To the sounds of the orchestra mixing cool classical with popular rock and roll, courtesy of Joby Talbot and The White Stripes, classical dancers are pushed to the limits of their control, flexibility and trust in one another. With shapes focused mostly on partnered duos and trios, the beautiful clean lines of the Australian Ballet dancers are tilted and flipped in extreme exaggerations of more classical poses.

The choreography calls for fluidity, but the dancers just don’t have it. There’s an obvious stumble, a missed hand grab and many sticky moments, and one dancer’s eerie smile stands out oddly from the rest of the serious faces on stage. All the same, the men’s strength is undeniable as they lift and move the women constantly, and the women impress too as they contort their bodies in unthinkable ways. In a sense, the dancers’ initial struggles with Chroma almost make for a greater appreciation of the difficulty of what they’re doing. As the piece speeds toward its climax, they throw themselves into the movement with intensifying abandon and we finally get a glimpse of all that Chroma can be. It’s indescribable. You need to see it.

After a first intermission, Art to Sky is a complete change of scene. The white box is gone, replaced by shadows and a hanging arch. The music is Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana and the costumes look like there was an insufficient budget. Though I try to keep an open mind, I just don’t get why this piece has been sandwiched here between McGregor and Kylián’s epic creations. Beyond the confusing choice for this transition, equally distracting are the messy lines and lack of synchronicity. Chengwu Guo saves the piece with an outstanding solo, though we wouldn’t expect less from this star. His theatrical abilities are also a highlight, making us laugh without being cheesy, as most of the rest of the piece seems to be.

It’s unclear what Art to Sky is trying to achieve. The choreography is pretty and generally well executed, but it resembles an exhibition piece from a ballet academy year-end show. Also, though there are moments where we laugh, a good half of it is nervous laughter that does little more than ease some of the confused tension in the audience. Although I liked this new creation by Australian Ballet resident choreographer Stephen Baynes, it felt completely out of place in this particular show.

Finally, we get to Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze. Like with Chroma these choreographies are tested and true, with the only question being what the Australian Ballet will bring to them?

Petite Mort starts strong with six men on stage in golden short shorts, swishing fencing swords through the air in a devastatingly seductive way. Six women stand half hidden in the background, emerging after a massive black veil is rolled over the scene. Dressed in tight gold corsets, they pair up with the men and deliver a beautiful, sexual, raw performance. Petite Mort means “small death”, and refers to an orgasm in French and Arabic culture.

Sechs Tänze is equally well presented, taking the props from Petite Mort, black wooden dresses on wheels that act as another set of six dancers, and reusing them now with humour and theatre. The swords also make a reappearance, skewered through apples or seeming to stab through someone’s back, playing again on ideas of desire and tension. Great acting and wild dancing completely draw you into this piece that jokes with colonial sexuality, inserting drag queens and bitchery for a full on spectacle.

This show was a big night, running for just over two and a half hours, but there is never a dull moment. Though Art to Sky was a confusing choice for me in this particular set, my date for the evening said it was her favourite piece. Chroma and Kylián’s two works have been performed better by others, but the Australian Ballet gave a good show. These choreographies are all worth seeing, and I hope to see Art to Sky taken up again in a more fitting context.