There’s something heartwarming about a home game. The expectant buzz, proud reminiscing, and encouraging cheers. The Sydney Opera House was awash with that home crowd anticipation for the Australian Ballet’s Verve, a contemporary triple bill celebrating the corps-to-choreographer rise of three “generations” of company talent: Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp. All three joined the company as corps members, and it was in company performances on fellow company dancers that their choreographic careers launched. Keeping it in the family, all three have become Resident Choreographers.

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in <i>Constant Variants</i> © Daniel Boud
Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Constant Variants
© Daniel Boud

The evening began with Baynes’s Constant Variants. Created in 2007, it is an abstract ensemble piece tributing Tchaikovsky’s famous Rococo Variations. Crafted to reflect the music’s classical restraint, it features softly lit picture frames, and costumes whose minimalism belies luxurious fabrics: jet lace on wine-coloured velvet (Jon Buswell’s lighting, and Michael Pearce’s set and costumes). Baynes’ choreography was the most mature of the evening, imbued with his own innate classicism and musicality, and his elegance, lightness, and gift for ‘suspending’ movement. As much-loved principal Madeleine Eastoe once said about creating the work: “you’d go from that run into stillness, framed by the set and in the light...finding a full stop is where the drama in his work comes in.”

Aoko Kondo danced the role created on Eastoe. Her delicate elegance was well-suited to the piece, touching those high points of phrasing – the “full stops” – with playful loveliness. Lucien Xu impressed with nimble footwork in the allegro variations. The ensemble sequences showcased good uniformity of shape, important for Baynes’ geometric emphasis on classical line, but was strangely patchy in unity of timing. For a work so pared back, this became uncomfortably noticeable, especially since pinpoint accuracy shows the choreography at its best. Teije Hylkema was the solo cellist, and under Simon Thew’s baton he and the orchestra played a reserved but pleasing rendition of the Variations.

Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in <i>Aurum</i> © Daniel Boud
Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in Aurum
© Daniel Boud

Topp’s Aurum was next. It – and Topp – have been the talk of the town since Aurum premiered to rave reviews in Melbourne last year, winning Topp the Joyce Theater’s Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance and a resident choreographer appointment. Now touted as the company’s Next Big Thing, she is the first female in over a decade and the second in the company’s history to receive that appointment. She still dances as a coryphée, appearing in Harbour’s piece right after her own, so this main-season Opera House debut marks the rise of a fresh choreographic voice. Aurum (Latin for gold) is inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken ceramics with precious metals. It celebrates the beauty of human frailties and the illumination and resilience borne from personal histories and scars. This vulnerability was conveyed in strikingly simple production elements: Ludovico Einaudi's searingly poignant music, Buswell’s fractured ceramic backdrop, and Topp’s own design of simple, porcelain-white costumes. But as the work moved towards its climax, bright light shot suddenly through the set’s cracks, rippling away to reveal a dramatically burnished golden floor that threw up the dancers’ reflections and made them seem to dance atop molten lacquer.

Callum Linnane and Coco Mathieson in <i>Aurum</i> © Daniel Boud
Callum Linnane and Coco Mathieson in Aurum
© Daniel Boud

Aurum resonated, very deeply, with the heart of the audience. I have viewed more complex and dazzling sequences many times, but it has been a long while since I saw choreography so sincerely focused on emotional resonance and human connection. With its feeling of leaning and sweeping into poses, the movement was clearly an instrument for meaning rather than – as often happens in contemporary dance – the other way round. The visibly moved audience erupted into cheers at the finale, but more revealingly the dancers reached collective heights of expression I rarely see on the company. (Soloist Callum Linnane was a captivating standout.) This is telling of Topp’s gift: a unique emotional intelligence and an ability to engage both audience and colleagues. Aurum’s New York debut in May will see how she is received on the international stage.

Callum Linnane and Dana Stephensen in <i>Filigree and Shadow</i> © Daniel Boud
Callum Linnane and Dana Stephensen in Filigree and Shadow
© Daniel Boud

Following was Filigree and Shadow, Harbour's 2015 work. Designed as a “catharsis for aggression” inspired by “birds surviving a hurricane”, it was a striking contrast to Aurum with its dystopian stark-lit concrete set, beat-heavy soundscape, severely slick costuming, and jagged, unrelenting athleticism. There was impressive dancing by the male ensemble, and Dimity Azoury and Dana Stephensen. Overall it felt a bit empty and lacking in satisfying structure – especially compared to some of Harbour’s other work – but the choreography's frenetic drive and angular energy provided visual engagement.

In an increasingly global dance world, where commentators decry the loss of national ballet identities, it is heartening to see the home ground spirit alive and well. Verve reminds us that dance thrives when local communities of audiences and artists foster each other and share successes, and that the long-term rewards are mutually enriching.

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