Friday 6 May 2022

Kunstkamer: An Extravaganza

De Rariteitkamer van Levinus Vincent, Gerrit Rademaker drawing 1680 - 1711
The stage is set for a Cabinet of Curiosities

I can tell you how I felt, Dear Reader, about our night out this week at the Sydney Opera House to watch The Australian Ballet's performance of Kunstkamer. Overwhelmed. Stunned. Captivated. When I thought at one point it was finishing I was bereft it was nearly over. Then I was overjoyed when it kept going. And we joined in rapturous applause with the rest of the audience when it did finish.

But how does one go about describing the sensory extravaganza that is the treasured gem of Nederlands Dans Theater? Others have described it as "monumental", "a beautiful monster", "an experience of dance on another frequency", "an expression of the endless possibilities that exist at the intersection of art and science." 

Geboorte van Christus sculptures (anon.), c. 1850-1900
Flights of fancy

To start somewhere is to say that its eighteen component parts are the brainchildren of four renowned choreographers whose imaginations have taken flight - Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. But that's no help. 

Portrait of Albertus Seba, Jacob Houbraken, after Jan Maurits Quinkhard, engraving 1731 - 1780
Albertus Seba considers his Curiosities
and inspires a Ballet

Next, that the whole, Kunstkamer, literally Art Room, is inspired by the 18th-century book by Albertus Seba, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and Maria Sybilla Merian's C18th scientific illustrations of the natural world, and is reflected in the stage set of a dark grey contemporaneous gallery space wherein these images and objets might have once been housed by eccentric collectors. Again, you are none the wiser.

Bloemenrand met insecten, Maria Sibylla Merian etching 1657 - 1717
O, the Natural World as seen by Maria Sybilla Merian

How about enumerating the roll call of composers from whose works were plucked extracts from operas, symphonies, polkas, even recordings: Ludwig von Beethoven to Ólafur Arnalds, via Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten, Christoph W. Gluck and Joby Talbot, Johann Strauss Jr and Arvo Pärt, Franz Schubert and ... Janis Joplin.

It then needs to be said that showcased against the luscious backdrop of the gorgeous music, which includes piano, violin and tambourine (!) solos, is contemporary dance exquisitely and precisely executed, gracefully and movingly alongside spoken words, singing (!!) and even film, with costumes elegant and sleek.

Finally, that The Australian Ballet is the first dance company to be entrusted with staging it outside of The Netherlands goes some way to indicate how rare a treat it is to have seen it, with pieces danced variously by the full ensemble, solos and pas de deux, and David Hallberg taking to the stage for the first time since becoming Artistic Director to dance the rôle of the spirit or caretaker, or ghost, of the Kunstkamer.

Rariteitenkabinet, Jacob van der Schley etching 1725 - 1779
Oddities and wonders in order

While none of this can even hint at what kind of ballet should be expected, it does indicate its extraordinary ambition. And, like a Cabinet of Curiosities, Kunstkamer's discrete and disparate choreographies are each beautiful and sometimes strange, hinting at art and science and nature and all belonging together. And altogether rather mysterious. And fabulous.

The Phoenix, Cornelis Troost oil on canvas 1720 - 1750
A fabulous Phoenix

So what did see? 

Glimpsed through the kaleidoscope I saw Mandelbrot sets and fractals emerging from the chaos; DNA strands zipping and unzipping; swimmers in a pool; murmurations of starlings; tableaux vivants à la Delacroix's Liberty; Courtly dancing; puppets and paper cutout animation; moths and butterflies, both fluttering and pinned in their collection drawers; the slightly fast-motion of early silent film; preening and courting birds, and maybe even a phoenix.

But that's just me.

I see Murmurating Starlings
Merlyn Chesterman woodcut

Image credits: 1-6: Rijksmuseum; 7:

Bats In The Belfry