Dance review: Butterfly, Australian Ballet School

Herald the metamorphosis of a new generation of dancers.

Butterfly was the hotly anticipated return to stage for the Australian Ballet School and a delight to the senses. 

In the titular piece, Hannah Sergi danced as the protagonist, a new girl at school contending with a hilarious pantomime of ‘mean girls’ cliques and macho groups vying for her attention. The opening scene described a classroom with a staunch teacher and wild students. The corps de ballet did a magical job at encapsulating the vivacity that they undoubtedly possess as teenagers. The choreography by former Australian Ballet School graduate Lucas Jervies was gorgeously oozy and playful, as the students stood to attention whenever their teacher passed and collapsed into gangly-legged release when she turned her back, their school uniforms flopping comically. The strut of the popular girls and tumbling fights of the boys were a humourous spectacle. The slapstick light relief of these moments were welcome after the gravity and disappointments of the past 18 months in Melbourne, with all the immense challenges that faced education and performance. 

It is worth noting here that Jervies chose a gender switch for the protagonists as well as updating the setting and antics of the corps to make it a relatable classroom scene. The traditional ballet, Le Papillon (The Butterfly) was a fantasy story of princes and tricksy fairies, presented by the Paris Opera Ballet in 1860 and choreographed by one of the era’s most celebrated ballerinas, Marie Taglion. 

Read: Theatre review: let bleeding girls lie, La Mama

Instead, Jervies chose to cast the butterfly who emerges from a cocoon at the school excursion to a butterfly house as the new boy to school. He is the only student who shows the new girl warmth and kindness. His metamorphosis into something resplendently vivid and beautiful shows the power and importance of kindness, which is rewarded in the story in a karmic way. It is wonderful to see this work, critical of bullying, gendered discrimination and unkindness developed so beautifully with these talented young dancers, especially after all the lockdowns and isolation. 

The movements were well-executed classical ballet technique embellished with comic characteristion and contemporary flair. This is to be expected given Jervies’ considerable time spent in the contemporary dance world. The young dancers looked to be having so much fun with this, shimmying, using body percussion to punctuate the drama. There was even a bee moonwalking in her pointe shoes, with junior (baby bees) échappéing gorgeously in tow. 

The costumes were exquisite. Brightly coloured unitards with hand painted butterfly wings for the male corps and glittering tutus with shining headpieces for the female corps. The set – designer Hugh Coleman’s vision – was exquisitely painted as a butterfly house with tropical flowers and filigree gates; imaginative and colourful.

Butterfly was a triumphant and heart-gladdening success; a wonderful return to stage for these wonderful young dancers. The only disappointment was during the traditional Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in the opening act. The costumes were drab in a palette of pale blue and grey contrasting less favourably with the vivacity of the main event, Butterfly. But again, it was danced very skillfully. 

The words of Jervies on his choreographic vision shine as a hopeful message for this new generation of dancers: ‘This production is a full circle story. Reflection and journey are the heart of Butterfly. For me, the metaphor of the butterfly – to transform – is infinite. It doesn’t happen just once or twice. It’s a constantly evolving process, one that we must always strive for. To be better, kinder, smarter.’ 

The dancers really rose to the occasion and were inspiring to witness. 

Butterfly by The Australian Ballet School
Arts Centre, Melbourne
Butterfly was performed from 10-12 December 2021. 

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA Review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.