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Australian ballet duo during rehearsals

Ballet: Faster and sifting for gold

Choreographer Tim Harbour talks about his new ballet and the endless labour of the creative process

Rose Mulready
The Australian Ballet

This article was first published by The Australian Ballet

Back in 2015, Tim Harbour faced a daunting prospect: he was commissioned by The Australian Ballet to make a new one-act piece that would sit in the middle of a triple bill, between one of George Balanchine’s revered Stravinsky ballets and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, perhaps the most popular contemporary dance work of all time.

Harbour, who is one of The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographers, attacked the challenge with an intensive process of solitary creation that resulted in the sleek, sinister ensemble piece Filigree and Shadow. It was the sleeper hit of the program, received ecstatically by audiences and lauded by critics.

Since then, Harbour has been on a creative binge, spending hours every day in the studio generating movement phrases. “I took a week off after Filigree; I recently took a week off over Christmas, but then I got straight back into it. It’s a compulsion. I don’t think it will ever change. It’s become a wonderful part of my life.”

The formidable ‘sketchbook’ of phrases Harbour has built up from these sessions readies him for what he calls “the best job in the world, which is to work with excellent dancers in a studio to create something new.” In 2017, that means another commission from The Australian Ballet to make Squander and Glory, a one-act ballet that premiered as part of the Faster program. 

"I'm preoccupied with energy. I see choreography as the organisation of energy."

Tim Harbour

The new work springs from a high-octane mix of two elements: Weather One, a restless, relentless score by Michael Gordon; and the theories of the French philosopher Georges Bataille, particularly as outlined in his essay The Accursed Share, written in the aftermath of World War II. In a complex examination of global economics and culture, Bataille argues that the excess energy in human systems “must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.” This dissipation of energy, he argues, is a necessary and inevitable release, like a pressure valve. It can occur through such means as the building of monuments and spectacles, the creation of art, sex for the sake of sex – or, more ominously, through war and human sacrifice.

For Harbour, who often spends two hours of studio time to bank ten seconds of movement, the idea had resonance. “I’m preoccupied with energy. I see choreography as the organisation of energy.” He began to see echoes of the theory all around him: in the countless failures that precede an entrepreneur’s breakthrough; in the sun, which “gives without return”; in the elaborate behaviours and plumage of courting birds, which marvellously exceed the minimum necessary to secure a mate. And, of course, in dance, which like all evanescent art forms takes the labour of creation and spends it in one transcendent, profligate burst before vanishing forever. “I’m trying in this piece to make all these glorious moments of form that are then thrown away, wrapped into something else. And at the end, it’s all gone. Bang. Curtain calls.”

There was something about Bataille’s theories that chimed with Weather One. Harbour spent hours reading and listening. “They’re both rebellious, audacious. Weather One is just so much fun. When I first heard it, I thought of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. But it’s like The Four Seasons played by Conan the Barbarian. It starts at a crescendo and sustains that for 20 minutes, without getting boring or tiring or obvious.”

two dancers during rehearsals for squander and glory

Squander and Glory: The Australian Ballet

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Tim Harbour
Tim Harbour on stage with the dancers Image: Jeff Busby

Despite his immersion in the score, Harbour didn’t use it to generate his choreography. He finds it more liberating to create movement independently and then bring the two together. “It’s not that I don’t want the relationship between the music and the movement to thrive, and I think I get there eventually. It’s quite uncanny the way they fit together. When the music comes in what it mainly does is force me to organise: it’s immediately clear what doesn’t work. That process is a very instinctive thing, a most enjoyable chore.”

It’s lucky Harbour enjoys the “chore” of organisation, because Squander, with its dense groupings of dancers and lightning-fast contrapuntal movement, requires a lot of it. “There’s so much going on, and it could easily just become a sort of porridge – but if you see that there’s something deliberate behind it, that it’s clearly organised, it’s a great reflection of the multiplicity of life.”

Reflection – in a literal sense – features in the set design, which centres around an immense screen of mirrored cloth that turns 14 dancers into 28. The architect Kelvin Ho and the lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, the creative team behind Filigree and Shadow, have collaborated again with Harbour on Squander and Glory. He calls the two “just a marriage made in heaven. Their aesthetics align. They both have a vision that’s very contemporary, very clean, no fuss. They click together. Sometimes I think they could go off without me and do something beautiful by themselves!”

The dancers’ doppelgängers, reflected by the screen, will extend the concept of multiplicity, the “organised complexity” of movement that rises up and falls away. “It’s like sifting for gold. You watch the dirt and the rubble clear, and there are little speckles of gold. And you throw it all out and start again. I want the dancers to be like those gleams of gold.”

And when it’s spent? “The glory is in the act of doing it.”

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