Dance review: Identity, Sydney Opera House

Two separate performances exemplify the grace and power of two of Australia's leading choreographers: Daniel Riley and Alice Topp.

Identity explores connection between Country and culture in two distinct pieces of choreography. 

The production is a first-time collaboration between The Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre (ADT). In the first half of the program ADT presents THE HUM, choreographed by its Artistic Director, Daniel Riley, in collaboration with dancers from both companies.

Riley says his inspiration for the piece was the ‘texture, feeling, emotion, the hum of the land, the communal energetic exchange between an audience and performers’. The work takes inspiration from Wiradjuri words murun meaning ‘of life breath’, and yindyamarra meaning ‘respect, be gentle, honour and do slowly’. It reflects the complex relationship between humans and Country, which is both personal and cultural, where time, space, weather and landscape create a life force that underpins human existence. 

Throughout, an amorphous pixilated pulsing projection encased in a ring of light hovers above the stage. Beneath, the 19 dancers – six from ADT and 13 from The Australian Ballet – pulse as one. At times the sense of connection is visceral, as breath and movement appear to complete a circle between the artists and the environment they explore.

Sebastian Geilings and Zachary Lopez deserve special mention for their powerful performances that are both instinctive and technically accomplished.

The original score by Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO is uncompromising and hypnotic. The costumes, by Annette Sax, echo the piece’s sense of connection to land through the use of natural fibre pigments sourced from traditional lands of Taungurung Badjur (women). The result is a magical, soulful and hypnotic evocation of identity that is both personal yet deeply connected. 

The second half of the program, Paragon, by The Australia Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Alice Topp, has a very different and more subjective view of identity. The piece takes inspiration from the company’s Diamond Jubilee to pay tribute to its origins, strength and evolution. 

Jessica Thompson in ‘Paragon’. Photo: Daniel Boud.

In a series of vignettes that pay homage to past productions, the company’s talented newer recruits are joined by former stars including Steven Heathcote AM, Simon Dow, Lucinda Dunn, Fiona Tonkin OAM, Sarah Pearce and Kirsty Martin, to name but a few. The passion that these dancers still hold for the form is obvious. The elegance and poise that made them stars remain, and their enduring technical ability is admirable. 

Topp has joined forces with long-time collaborator Designer Jon Buswell, Composer Christopher Gordon and Costume Designer Aleisa Jelbart. Visuals from the company’s archives – including production programs and photographs – adorn screens behind the dance. The costumes and score offer playful and imaginative respect to the productions they reflect.  

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At the end of the piece, the towering screens revolve to reveal a ballet studio in which members of the company rehearse, chat and embrace. The scene is a touching finale to a wonderful tribute to a company that obviously has a heart-felt and enduring sense of identity and affection both for each other and the art form. 

Identity, Sydney Opera House 
Choreography: Daniel Riley, in collaboration with cast
Music: Deborah Cheetham Fraillon AO
Costume design: Annette Sax

Choreography:  Alice Topp
Music:  Christopher Gordon
Costume design: Aleisa Jelbart
Set and lighting design: Jon Buswell

Identity will be performing at the Sydney Opera House until 20 May before touring to Arts Centre Melbourne from 16-24 June 2023

Virginia Balfour is a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She has extensive experience working in the UK film and television industry as a producer and director, as well as an NGO film-maker in the USA. She is a published author and journalist and lives with her family in Sydney.