Dance review: IN Cognito, Ballet at the Quarry

Four works celebrate the 30th anniversary of the West Australian Ballet's performances at the Quarry.

Western Australia’s flagship ballet company opened its 71st season with what is surely one of its best recent contemporary productions. This summer festival fixture celebrates WA Ballet’s 30th year at the Quarry, and it’s a pairing as perfect as champagne and oysters or port and blue cheese – a decent amount of which was almost certainly consumed by the picnicking audience on the night this reviewer attended.

Often, pieces showcased within this contemporary season are eclipsed by the beauty of the venue, but IN Cognito will send both aficionados and casual ballet fans home satiated.

IN Cognito features four works, Open Heart Story (world premiere), Verses (Australian premiere), Persona [Fratres] (Australian premiere) and the title piece IN Cognito (Australian premiere).

Open Heart Story, choreographed by Alice Topp (The Australian Ballet and Project Animo) is a series of intimate tales, each emotionally dissecting the remarkable organ in our chest – beating, pumping and at times damaged.

Topp is hailed as one of Australia’s most exciting and acclaimed young choreographers, and the piece is a beautiful showcase of some of our brightest dancers. Open Heart Story captures the audience immediately and holds it throughout the five tales. The use of red and black in the staging and costumes is striking yet simple and, combined with Luke Howard’s music, it’s a breath-taking start to the evening.

Verses, choreographed, costumed and lit by Robert Bondara, is a quieter, more exacting duet originally created for Polish National Ballet dancers, and brilliantly executed by Kiki Saito and Juan Carlos Osma. Depicting loss, loneliness, sorrow, memories and feelings for people to whom we feel attached throughout our lives, it is a beguiling piece that captivates the audience. 

Both Open Heart Story and Versus follow the clean, minimalistic aesthetic of costuming that highlights the pure athleticism and detail in every movement of contemporary dance.

‘To be a man means never to be oneself.’ This exclamation by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (1904 – 1969) was a starting point for Bondara to create the original full-length performance, Persona. The ability we have as humans to adapt to different roles and behaviours was labelled ‘persona’ by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Here we are treated to a shortened version of the original pas de deux, albeit with a trio – but still very much a duet, as our focal point is usually only ever on two of the three people at any one time. 

If anyone in the audience has watched the TV series Succession lately, parts of the choreography will remind you of the ‘performance-enhancing initiative’ referred to as ‘footstooling’ (human furniture) by the character Tom Wambsgans. The dancers execute the moves with a lot more grace and style, but it does evoke the same feelings and questions about how we let ourselves be treated and how we deal with other human beings.

Alexa Tuzil, Jack Whiter and Ludovico Di Ubaldo do a beautiful job with this piece and their controlled connectedness is quite something to behold.

The evening ends with IN Cognito, a fun examination of connection, where people battle with time, furniture, identities and precision. Inspired by Tom Robbins’ novel, Villa Incognito, and the recurring leitmotif of being incognito that Robbins tackles within all of his books, choreographer Helen Pickett has created a cheeky ode to the writer. 

IN Cognito almost begs for audience interaction as the characters demand titters and gasps with their face-pulling, surprise and inter-swapping antics. The costuming and décor are meant to serve as celebratory and performative signifiers of these bright decades, but I found the extraneous movement of potted trees and room dividers unnecessary.

Perhaps in a theatre environment with a more enclosed stage these would work better, but on an otherwise stark and open stage too much focus is taken from the art that we are all there to see.

It did, however, certainly make for a jovial and almost relatable ending that meant house lights came on to a smiling and elated crowd.

Read: Book review: The Matchmaker, Saman Shad

These exclusive pieces are all presented exquisitely, and bringing some of the world’s best choreographers to Perth is indeed a fitting way to celebrate 30 years at the spectacular Quarry.

IN Cognito: Ballet at the Quarry
West Australian Ballet
IN Cognito: Ballet at the Quarry will be performed until 11 March 2023

Victoria Wyatt has worked across the music/festival/theatre scenes in New York, London and Rome for the last 15 years. She is currently back in her hometown of Perth and can be found writing for Artshub, designing sets and interactive displays for children's/community events and stage/production managing around town.