Beauty and tragedy echo from canvas to stage

9 September 2023

WA Ballet’s inventive and impressionistic take on the life of Vincent Van Gogh captures the colour and movement of his work, writes Kim Balfour.

Echoes of Van Gogh, West Australian Ballet
His Majesty’s Theatre, 8 September 2023

Echoes of Van Gogh, West Australian Ballet’s world premiere production, is an immersive exploration into the great artist’s life, work and psychologically fraught mind.

While choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma employs a loose narrative to drive “Echoes”, the work is primarily comprised of vibrant, fleeting impressionistic scenes that depict Vincent Van Gogh’s brief, tumultuous existence.

His work is captivating in the way it emulsifies dance, music, digital technology and Van Gogh’s paintings into a unique, colourful, introspective whole.

Kuindersma, who frequently explores themes of human connectedness and gender equality, brings together a talented team of artistic collaborators who realise the work’s rich, contemplative tone and atmosphere.

Set, video and costume designer Tatyana Van Walsum projects enormous digital renditions of Van Gogh’s most famous works onto a backdrop of fabric strips, from which the performers, like living brushstrokes, emerge.

Anthony Fiumara’s dynamic score is lavishly executed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Jessica Gethin, who perfectly juxtaposes softness and intensity, mirroring Van Gogh’s oscillations between tranquillity and chaos.

Echoes of Van Gogh
Alexa Tuzil (Johanna), Juan Carlos Osma (Theo) and Ludovico Di Ubaldo (Vincent) in ‘Echoes of Van Gogh’. Photo: Bradbury Photography

Walsum’s digital projections are in themselves a feature, and at times compete with the dancers for attention. The projections slide, zoom and scroll, sometimes only a fraction of a painting revealed, scaled up so high our gaze is irresistibly drawn to Van Gogh’s signature brushstrokes.

But while Jon Buswell’s immaculately rendered lighting, Fiumara’s score and Janine Brogt’s dramaturgy successfully bind together Kuindersma’s artistic vision, there are moments that interrupt the flow of the performance.

The more representational, realistic moments are not as strong as the abstract ones. The latter provide opportunities for greater immersive emotional, ruminative moments, while the attempts at realistic narrative and characterisation are sometimes distracting.

A scene involving multiple hanging picture frames and beret-clad, palette wielding artists looks cramped and awkward for the dancers. Scenes involving Van Gogh (Ludovico Di Ubaldo) and Paul Gauguin (Oscar Valdes) have similar issues. That said, the duo work between Ubaldo and Valdes is wonderful, both in choreography and performance.

Echoes of Van Gogh
WA Ballet dancers evoke Van Gogh’s ‘The Potato Eaters’. Photo: Bradbury Photography

The areas where “Echoes” and the performers excel are Kuindersma’s beautifully choreographed duets, trios and group sections. Act one contains a series of group sections depicting peasants working the field, clad in straw hats and ultramarine blue overalls (apparently Van Gogh’s favourite blue). These group pieces have a tone and driving choreography reminiscent of Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring

Van Gogh often focused on themes of peasant life and his surroundings, and these are captured in this production, specifically the way in which Kuindersma references Wheatfield with Crows, claimed to be Van Gogh’s last painting, and The Potato Eaters, a depiction of the De Groot family who Van Gogh knew for some time.

Dancers Alexa Tuzil, Polly Hilton, Kiki Saito and Oscar Valdes, playing Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Sien Hoornik, Kee Vos-Stricker and Gauguin respectively, are all excellent, each bringing expressive characterisations and technique to their roles. A highlight of the evening is the pas de deux between Ubaldo and Juan Carlos Osma (Van Gogh’s brother Theo), which is an exercise in emotionally touching and connected synchronicity.

French writer and dramatist Antonin Artaud celebrated Van Gogh’s approach to form and colour, where gathering clouds and waves of wheat have a psyche, and the earth takes on the colour of sea. Kuindersma’s colourful, inventive and impressionistic take on Van Gogh’s life captures the essence of Artaud’s sentiments, and is sure to be a favourite for Van Gogh lovers and dance enthusiasts alike.

Echoes of Van Gogh continues until 23 September 2023

Pictured top: Ludovico Di Ubaldo as Vincent in Wubkje Kuindersma’s ‘Echoes of Van Gogh’. Photo by Bradbury Photography

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Author —
Kim Balfour

Kim Balfour is a writer and former professional dancer, who has danced with companies such as WA Ballet and Sydney Dance Company. Kim has worked as a freelance writer for more than 15 years, including the role of dance writer for The West Australian newspaper. In 2020, Kim was selected as a writer-in-residence at the Centre for Stories, and is writing a work of creative nonfiction on gender identity and expression in dance. As a child Kim was sometimes seen sitting on a gently spinning playground carousel, deep in thought, staring at her feet as they dragged along the ground.

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