Dance review: Clay (digital), The Australian Ballet

As part of the Bodytorque.Digital online series by the Australian Ballet, Clay offers a reminder of the powerful intimacy and solace of dance.

Clay, choreographed by Alice Topp, lends itself to filmic form alluringly in the Bodytorque.Digital online series by The Australian Ballet. With the recent cancellation of the ballet’s Summer Gala, this makes for gorgeous viewing in the interim; a reminder to audiences of the powerful intimacy and solace of dance in disorienting times. Topp says in her introduction to the piece that she hopes Clay can show the poetry of human connection through shared energy and touch. The work emulates a gentle melding of bodies, the way clay becomes slick and supple with heat and moisture and has moments of intense vulnerability, and the way clay crumbles when dry. Speaking of the work, dancer Nathan Brook mentions the turbulence of the past two years with isolation and disruption to people’s lives and suggests audiences will be drawn to the tenderness of the work. The emotion of the live performances have been profound as he states ‘the carpet had been pulled out from beneath us’, since the dancers learned during the premiere of this piece of the impending lockdowns. 

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The dancers describe how the piece has only evolved in emotive force; the remounting of the work in Sydney Opera House in November 2021, after the city’s long lockdown was at once a kind of tender homecoming and an ecstatic climax. Having seen Clay live on stage and on film, I feel that the videography brings a unique, expansive dimension to the work. Brook says that he hopes digital viewers can see Karen (his partner in the piece) ‘through [his] eyes’. Like Roland Barthes’ concept of the ‘third meaning’, cinema lends itself to a ‘signified’, emotive reading. The register of emotion is perhaps more intoxicating and pulls the viewer in more than live performance in a large theatre.  

Clay by Alice Topp

The sensuality of this piece is perhaps reminiscent of La Petite Morte by Jiří Kyliá and lends itself so beautifully to the multiple convergent and divergent perspectives of film. The director of photography, Brett Ludeman has done a magnificent job alongside music producer Nicolette Fraillon to weave together a visual and auditory delight that makes the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up. Brook and Nanesca caress, roll and glide over each other with both tension and ease to an ethereal score by Ella Macens. The cello section, performed by Melissa Chominsky, is played with heartbreaking virtuosity. They dance together in a cloistered space; a dome-shaped room with exposed brick walls, adding to the intensity of the pas de deux. The choreographic score involves counterbalance, supported balances and turns with the dancers’ faces and bodies within millimetres of each other, ebbing and flowing like waves.

‘It’s hard to watch sometimes because you feel like you’re watching something that’s behind closed doors…it’s really intense,’ Topp says and this is the lasting effect of this piece. Clay lays two people completely bare in their intimacies and intricacies in a way that invites viewers to access the tenderest parts of their own being. In so doing, it invites audiences to embrace these messy, romantic/ruptured, proximate/distant, composed/ disinhibited parts of themselves and the times in a deeply touching way.  

Clay, by Alice Topp
Presented by Bodytorque.Digital by The Australian Ballet

Choreography: Alice Topp
Performers: Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook
Original Music: Ella Macens
Music: Kylie Foster, Monica Naselow, Thomas Higham, Melissa
Recording Engineers: Guus Hoevenaars and Nathaniel Currie
Audio Editor: Tony David Cray
Music Producer: Nicolette Fraillon AM
Music recorded at Newmarket Studios
Director of Photography: Brett Ludeman 
Camera/Lighting Operators: David Ward and David McRobbie Park
Production Runner: Eloise Fryer

Still Photography: Edita Knowler
Editor: Brett Ludeman
Behind the Scenes: Editor David Ward
GFX: Stephen Wood
Producer: Robyn Fincham
Filmed on location at Norla Dome, Mission to Seafarers Victoria
Special thanks Orchestra Victoria, Simon Thew, Ellen Dutton, Daria Wray and Sue Dight.

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.