The Australian Ballet

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Leap of Faith

Once seen, never forgotten: the 540 is an impressive move where the male dancer appears to spin around the fulcrum of his own leg, turning 540° in the air. It’s performed sparingly – usually as the showstopping end to the male variation in a gala piece like the pas de deux from Le Corsaire or Diana and Actéon – and requires much practice and not a little nerve. Two of our leading 540-ers, Principal Artist Chengwu Guo and Senior Artist Marcus Morelli, tell us what it takes to “basically jump over yourself.”

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Guo trained at the Beijing Dance Academy before travelling on a scholarship to study at The Australian Ballet School. At Beijing, he was selected for the pure ballet stream but felt more affinity with Chinese Dance, a blend of ballet, acrobatics and martial arts. The 540, which is thought to have originated in the martial art Tae Kwon Do, was part of the Chinese Dancers’ repertoire. Guo was hooked. “I saw them doing it in the studio and was like ‘Wow, that’s so amazing, it’s so cool.’ All I wanted was to be able to do the step. I would just watch, and think how I would do it. We didn’t have an acrobatics teacher, but I can do a backflip – I taught myself that as well. You’d be surprised how much humans can teach themselves.”

Like an acrobat, Guo started off slow, landing at first on a floor mat, feeling out the shape of the movement. “One day I thought, ‘I feel confident today. I’m just going to give it a
shot.’ And bang, I got it. Like anything that you do for the first time, it wasn’t perfect, but I managed to feel how it actually felt. Then I started working on the quality of the jump: the height, the power, the light and shade in the air.”

See Chengwu's 540
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Morelli also discovered the 540 as a student. He was training at The Australian Ballet School, and a friend performed the step in the studio. Like Guo, he immediately set out to add it to his repertoire. “It took me a whole year to get the mechanics down so I could do it properly – and safely, as well. It’s such a big explosive movement, you have to know how to land it properly.” So what happens when you don’t land it? “I’ve got good at falling safely. You practise these things so often, you’re bound to hit the deck at least a couple of times. That’s the hard part about learning the step – taking the fear away. You need to do it but be ready to put your hands down when you fall. The hardest part is eliminating that last step. Once you’ve actually done it the first time, you know what it feels like in your body, and what pathway your body will take to reach that end position. It looks harder than it is: it just takes a lot of guts to reach the stage where you go ahead and do it.”

See Marcus' 540
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Morelli was inspired by footage of the Ukrainian superstar Sergei Polunin (“he has really clean 540s: it doesn’t even look like a 540, it looks like its own step”) and by the closer-to-home example of Guo (“Chen whips them out in class and onstage all the time, and it’s so impressive, it just takes your breath away”). He’s achieved a dazzling 540 of his own, and both he and Guo snap out a chain of three at the end of the Diana and Actéon pas de deux.

With both Guo and Morelli turning on the fireworks (and audiences responding rapturously), more of the company’s men are starting to pick the step up. However, don’t expect to see it too often. “It’s important to know when it’s appropriate,” says Morelli. “Stylistically, it should fit the ballet.” It should also fit the character: “You would never do it when you’re a prince, or a character that dances nobly,” says Guo.

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The 540 has rapidly evolved – a reverse version is currently doing the rounds – and Guo has mastered three different styles. The classic, and the one most dancers (including Morelli)
prefer, is done with the body twisting over a straight leg. Guo’s favourite style substitutes a hooked leg, “almost a retiré shape. I feel there’s more dynamic if you have the leg bent during the kick in the air. With a straight leg, the energy’s quite even. With it bent, you get a whip-like finish. There’s another perk with the bent leg: you can always finish it neatly, kneeling on the floor, with arabesque arms.” The third style he favours matches the hooked leg with an upright body.

So what does it feel like to, as Morelli puts it, “basically jump over yourself”? Guo has come a long way from his first, rough try. “I can get it every time now. It feels quite nice. The suspension in the air is longer than in normal ballet jumps. It feels quite satisfying.” Morelli agrees: “The force of that one leg going all the way over in that huge arc … you get a bit of hang time in the air. It’s a liberating feeling – your arms are free and your legs are flying, and you have a moment in the air that’s quite relaxed. You really gun yourself into the preparation, which is powerful, but the 540 itself is quite relaxed. The work has already been done. It really does just feel like you’re flying. It’s fun: you feel the wind go through your hair.”