A groundbreaking commission by WA Ballet Director Aurelien Scannella reached fruition this week with the premiere of Milnjiya, Milky Way – River of Stars.  On Tuesday night the stars were twinkling over the Quarry Ampitheatre making the most idyllic setting imaginable for the company’s collaboration with Gary Lang’s NT Dance Company, Deborah Cheetham and Yirrkala traditional artists.

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Photo Sergey Pevnev

As Milnjiya opened the company (a mix of three NT Dance Company and eight WA Ballet dancers) were lying on the floor covered in clay dust. Songman Banula Marika and yidaki (didgeridu) player Malngay Yunupingu walked across the stage chanting a song, while Bunguul dancers Ngalkanbuy Yunupingu and Loretta Yunupingu stepped over the dancers, flicking branches and calling their spirits from the dust. The Yirrkala traditional artists watched as the dancers rose, moving elegaically to the sounds of Gorecki’s Symphony No 3, “Sorrowful Songs”.

Gorecki’s Symphony incorporates songs from a mother lamenting and wishing a peaceful end for her lost child. It was a hauntingly beautiful pairing with Lang’s choreography which drew inspiration from his Yolngu heritage, in particular his mother’s Milky Way creation story about calling and releasing the trapped spirits of the dead.

The clinching piece in this profound new work was Yorta Yorta soprano Deborah Cheetham dressed in shimmering white robes as the Spirit Caller. She sang Gorecki’s songs with powerful depth and richness accompanied by a stunning recorded performance by the West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Jon Tooby. The slow build and release of Gorecki’s music paired with Lang’s stately, fluid choreography created a mystical and moving work.

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Deborah Cheetham. Photo Sergey Pevnev

The barefoot dancers were dressed in dusty, rainbow-patterned skirts and every lift caused a puff of dust to float into the air. Periodically the Yirrkala artists would return with their song and branches and aspects of their moves could be spotted in the corps de ballet: wide stamping strides, bent posture and fast tip-toe foot work. Lang’s integration of the various styles was subtle and seamless, creating a powerfully moving piece of theatre.

Also on the program was Claude Brumachon’s Les Indomptes, a duo set to the vulnerable, soaring music of countertenor and pianist Wim Mertens. Jesse Homes and Matthew Lehmann captured the untamed spirit referred to in the title. Rapid flashes of movement, flicking heads and savage runs were balanced by fluid lyricism as the dancers repeatedly connected and separated.  Homes and Lehmann were a compelling duo navigating Brumachon’s choreography with emotion and strength.

WA Ballet dancer and choreographer Christopher Hill made links between both these works in his soulful Ghost Gum. A sculpture of a gnarled ghost gum formed the backdrop for the duet by Ana Gallardo Lobaina (Earth) and Melissa Boniface (Water). Hill’s effective choreography included the symmetry of waving arms with dresses rippling in the wind and striking silhouette work in front of white screens (lighting by Joseph Mercurio). The electronic score (composed by Hill) became more rhythmic including tapping sticks and the sound of rushing water. Apart from a somewhat contrived section of bass-heavy house music where the dancers literally picked up their skirts and began hip hop moves, the work was a serene and earthy contribution to the program.

The weakest link was Patrick Delcroix’s Paradise Within, a contemporary dance piece following a day in the life of “Everyman” and his encounter with the dark side of humanity. Minimalist layered music by Ezio Bosso was matched by multiple scenarios unfolding on stage as characters wrestled, tumbled and collapsed. The lack of variety and substance in the twenty minute work meant it didn’t captivate in the same way as the otherwise uniquely rich program.

Ballet at the Quarry continues until March 3rd.