Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

‘New Breed’ (2016). Sydney Dance Company

9 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The most ‘left-of-centre’ work on this year’s New Breed program was the final offering, Shian Law’s Epic Theatre. His premise, which he enunciated at the end of his work, was that theatre is basically one set of people looking at another set of people. And so he played with who was audience and who was performer, beginning as we entered the performing space for the start of his work. There was, however, a kind of ‘taster’ during the interval when we watched two dancers engaging in a powerful physical encounter outside the theatre space. (Carriageworks doesn’t really have a lobby as such).

Once inside, we were confronted by a line of people, a mix of dancers and audience, with arms linked tightly. The way to our seats was effectively blocked. Gradually we were given an opportunity to move to our seats and once everyone was in, there was some crazy dancing, especially from the tall and physically expressive Sam Young-Wright who, at one stage, stripped down to his underpants. There was also a lot of walking up, down, and around the performing space by dancers and some audiences members. But in the end, as entertaining as it all was, and that entertaining aspect extended to an electronic score played live by composer Marco Cher-Gibard, the idea was more interesting than the performance.

Coming in a close second in the left-of-centre stakes was Richard Cilli’s Hinterland. It began with a section in which a group of dancers ‘commented’ on the dancing of their colleagues with noises of various kinds—grunts, whoops and a range of silly sounds. Then followed a section when the dancers collapsed in a writhing heap while the triumphant strains of Liszt’s Chapelle de Guillaume Tell filled the air. The work finished with a section in which there was an ongoing discussion of which dancer was most like which character in the movie Titanic. (Bernhard Knauer was the iceberg!)

According to Cilli, Hinterland ‘explores the tension between outward appearances and the vast inner landscape.’ A little like Epic Theatre, the idea was a rather more interesting than the outcome. Having said that, some parts Hinterland were quite funny and Daniel Roberts was particularly expert at making his silly noises sound perfectly suited to the movements of his colleagues

I really enjoyed the opening work, Jesse Scales’ What you see, even though it might be regarded as the most conventional of the evening’s offerings—if indeed anything emerging from Sydney Dance can be thought of as conventional. Made for just three dancers, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Nelson Earl and Latsiha Sparks, and performed to music by Max Richter, it consisted basically of three solos, followed by a group section in which the silent screams of each of the dancers was a gripping element. Each solo focused on a different kind of gloom or torment, but the dancing was so good that the darkness of mood did not overpower the work. The whole was carefully composed with each solo following on smoothly from the other, and with the performers often moving down the diagonal with the kind of extreme movement that characterises much of Sydney Dance Company’s work. All three dancers performed exceptionally well and their facial expressions were a powerful means of highlighting the moods of What you see.

Scene from 'What you see'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from What you see, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

For me the work of the night, however, was Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Of Dust, which explored connections between the stars, and other cosmic forces, and man’s journey from birth to death. It was a fast moving piece danced to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley. It began with a tightly knit group of dancers, five in all (Juliette Barton, Richard Cilli, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, and Charmene Yap), pulling each other and the group into a series of constantly changing shapes. There was tension there, but also a feeling of unity. What followed teetered between order and disorder, connections and disconnections with some wonderful dancing from Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap in particular. Partnering was exceptional and the work moved swiftly and lyrically from beginning to end.

Unlike the situation with What you see, perhaps it would have been difficult to make the connection between Ogle’s work and her intentions without program notes, but Of Dust was a beautiful work to watch. It is the first piece I have seen from Ogle, who is based in Western Australia. I look forward to seeing more.

Scene from 'Of Dust'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from Of Dust, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Lighting for each of the four works was by Benjamin Cisterne and was most effective in Of Dust where Cisterne was able to use downlights, circles of light, changing colours, and other devices to add to the feeling that we were looking beyond the earth.

Michelle Potter, 14 December 2016

Featured image: Scene from Epic Theatre, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

On another note, it is frustrating that Sydney Dance Company no longer provides names  of dancers in the captions attached to its media images. The dancers of Sydney Dance Company are all exceptional performers and deserve to be identified. I can guess but I’d rather be sure by having the company do the work of identification.

Scene from 'Project Rameau'. Photo: Justine Walpole

‘Project Rameau’. Sydney Dance Company & Australian Chamber Orchestra

12 September 2013, Canberra Theatre

As the curtain went up on Project Rameau in Canberra, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra seated on a platform at the back of the stage space and the dancers of Sydney Dance Company lined up in front of the platform, I wondered whether this collaboration would in fact work. One or two companies have been critical of the Canberra Theatre space because of its relatively small performing area (compared with some stages in Sydney and Melbourne), and there before my eyes were two companies sharing the stage. Well I need not have worried. Project Rameau was one of those made-in-heaven collaborations and the size of the stage seemed of little consequence and, after all, exceptional artists are always adaptable.

Musically Project Rameau consisted of nineteen selections of music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, two by Antonio Vivaldi and a single piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Sydney Dance Company’s director, Rafael Bonachela, responded choreographically to this musical selection with a varied series of dances ranging from duets and trios to pieces for larger groups, at times for his entire ensemble of dancers. Occasionally within these group pieces, we saw short, mesmerising solos.

Scene from 'Project Rameau'. Photo: Justine WalpoleCharmene Yap and Bernhard Knauer in a duet from Project Rameau. Sydney Dance Company, 2013. Photo: © Justine Walpole

Several pieces stood out. I especially admired the dance made to the presto movement from ‘Summer’’ in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This trio for one female and two male dancers overflowed with energy as Janessa Dufty was tossed through the air between her two partners. In contrast was a slow, intimate duet for two men danced to a section from Rameau’s Castor and Pollux.

But the true colours of Sydney Dance Company shone in the dances made for the full company. Here Bonachela created a sense of hierarchy and formality looking back to the courtly nature of Baroque dance, with the odd wiggle of the backside thrown in. And the precision of those dancers as they moved together was absolutely stunning. Dance director Amy Hollingsworth take a bow for magnificent skills in the rehearsal room. Moving in unison creates perfection in patterns and that was what we got.

I never tire of watching Chen Wen. I admire the sense of shape and space in his every movement, not to mention his athleticism and his beautifully stretched extensions. The other individual dancer who stood out for me in Project Rameau was Andrew Crawford, dancing with exceptional fluidity. He makes a great partner too for Juliette Barton. But it is with reservation that I single out any one dancer. They are such a wonderful ensemble of movers and it is an absolute joy to watch them.

Ben Cisterne’s lighting added a very contemporary element to the show but also realised ingeniously that sense of perspective that marked Baroque stages.

Project Rameau was nothing short of an enthralling collaboration with a thrilling final sequence to a contra danse from Rameau’s Les Boréades that turned into a choreographed curtain call.

Michelle Potter, 14 September 2013

Read my preview story on Project Rameau published in The Canberra Times, 31 August 2013, at this link.

‘Les illuminations’. Sydney Dance Company

3o August 2013, Studio Theatre, Sydney Opera House

With his latest program, Les Illuminations, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela has given audiences a new look at his spectacular dancers. This is an intimate program, made so by its venue, the Studio at the Sydney Opera House, and by its setting within that venue. The program, which consists of two short pieces both to music by Benjamin Britten, Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, is danced on a T-shaped catwalk with the audience seated in the round. On the cross bar of the ‘T’ sits a string ensemble of musicians from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They are joined in the second part by singer Katie Noonan, who sings the soprano role in Les Illuminations. The dancers perform entirely on the long line of the T.

What struck me instantly as Simple Symphony began was that Bonachela was taking advantage of the restricted performance space and was using more high lifts than usual. ‘Boisterous Bourrée’, the opening duet danced by Janessa Dufty and Andrew Crawford, began with a kind of ‘presage’ lift and continued with some gorgeous partnering, including more lifts. These two dancers set up a lovely partnership not only by dancing so well but also through their emotional connection with each other. Touch, glances, head movements, all played a part in making this duet a wonderful opener. The third part, ‘Sentimental Sarabande’ also stood out for its strong and emotionally engaging dancing by Fiona Jopp and Bernhard Knauer. With Toni Maticevski’s close fitting, light coloured costumes, decorated with pale turquoise trimmings, and the often playful moments in the choreography, Simple Symphony reminded me of a pastoral romp.

 

'Les Illuminations'. Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013
'Les Illuminations'. Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. Photo: Ellis Parrinder, 2013

Studies for Les Illuminations. Left: Jessica Thompson and Charmene Yap; right: Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer. Photos: © Ellis Parrinder, 2013. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

There was nothing pastoral about the second section of the program, Les Illuminations. This was a darker side of life and featured just four dancers once more—Juliette Barton, Charmene Yap, Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper. The title Les Illuminations relates to a poem written by the Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud and the choreography seemed to me to have many elements that characterise Symbolism, a movement in the arts that was ‘in the air’ at the time when Rimbaud and his lover Paul Verlaine were writing. Ideas were suggested as dancers prowled around their long, narrow space casting telling glances at each other. Nothing seemed obvious. Maticevski’s costumes, this time sleeveless bodysuits in black with the addition of a black feathered headdress worn by Barton and a black face mask worn by Bradley, suggested a kind of decadence to me, again part of the Symbolist mood.

This second part of the program was certainly striking and as ever beautifully danced but I’m just not sure that the ideas that Rimbaud was writing about can be well portrayed through the medium of dance. It did, however, set up an effective contrast with Simple Symphony.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2013.

NOTE: A dance work to Simple Symphony was first seen in Australia in October 1947 during a tour by Ballet Rambert. That version was choreographed by Walter Gore. Gore’s Simple Symphony was filmed in Brisbane (outdoors, or at least partly outdoors, if I remember correctly from watching the film some years ago) in 1948. Here is the National Film and Sound Archive’s catalogue record. Although of course Bonachela’s Simple Symphony is quite, quite different, it makes a nice tie-in with the Gore production, given Bonachela’s connections with Rambert Dance.

 

‘Shared Frequencies.’ Sydney Dance Company

This latest program from Sydney Dance Company featured two works: Raw models by Italian-born choreographer Jacopo Godani and LANDforms by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in 'Raw models'. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company
Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in ‘Raw models’. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

Raw models opened the program and I have to admit that I read the choreographer’s note before the curtain went up. Bad move probably because it was a decidedly alienating note and smacked to me of meaningless, intellectual jargon. The dancing, however, was not alienating, although it would have to be described as intense or perhaps severe.

The stage was set as a black box: two black side screens and a black backdrop/screen. The dancers were dressed minimally in black lycra-style short shorts and transparent tops. They wore what I think were skin-tight, soft leather ankle boots. This footwear was interesting because the lighting (by Godani) was such that most of the time it was hard to tell until curtain call time whether the black shadows at foot/ankle level were just shadows on bare feet and legs or whether the dancers were wearing some kind of footwear. Sometimes, as a result of the lighting, the dancers looked as though they had no feet, or that their legs ended in some kind of malformation. This reminded me of  a Francis Bacon painting where bodies are distorted and contorted, not completely beyond recognition but enough to make one wonder.

In terms of choreography, Godani had the dancers moving as if they were jointless. Their arms in particular rippled and undulated, but at such a speed that at times they became blurred. Bacon and his distorted bodies again slipped into my mind. Most of the movement was performed with the dancers bunched tightly together so not only did the bodies look distorted they seemed not able to separate themselves from each other. But the work was very slick, very shiny, although despite the coupling of bodies throughout to me it looked a-sexual.

Production photographs from Raw models are interesting. They show off the dancers and the costumes beautifully but give no idea really of what the piece looked like as a moving canvas of bodies. While this is the case most of the time with dance, it seems even more of an issue with Raw models given the effects on the eye that Godani’s work has. Nothing like being there in the end.

Raw models was performed to a commissioned electronic score by Ulrich Mueller and Siegfried Roessert of the German experimental group 48nord, which added to the bleakness of the work (and again to my feeling that Bacon was overseeing its unfolding).

After all the gloom and blackness, Bonachela’s LANDforms seemed like it came from another planet. It opened with a solo by Juliette Barton whose dancing and understanding of Bonachela’s movement style just gets better and better. Bathed in a warm golden light (lighting by Mark Dyson) she moved through Bonachela’s flowing, intricate choreographic phrases as if she were born to do so.

Bonachela has spoken elsewhere about the development of this work with composer Ezio Bosso, and about its genesis in ideas about the weather and the landscape. But what struck me more than anything was the manner in which Bonachela had structured this work. I loved the variety and dynamics of the patterns he developed throughoout. There were times when the pace was serene, others when it was more frenetic. And in the most frenetic section of all bodies hurtled across the stage space from all directions. Here the athletic Chen Wen was a standout as he threw himself into one leap and turn after another. The second section, composed entirely of duets, was also particularly impressive. Here we saw some duets for two men, some for two women and some for a man and woman. Each had a different expressive quality and gained yet another texture if it were the only duet on stage or if it were just one among several happening at the same time.

Bosso’s luscious score for piano, violin, cello and voice was played live in the pit with Bosso directing from the piano. Towards the end Katie Noonan slipped in to add her distinctive voice to the piano trio.

Sydney Dance Company is looking brilliant and its repertoire, whether bleak or passionate, is receiving great audience response. Cheering, whistling, stamping, and the drumming of heels greet the fall of the curtain.

Michelle Potter, 10 April 2011

Featured image: Juliette Barton, Chen Wen and Richard Cilli in LANDforms. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company