Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig

Sydney Dance Company turns 50

Below is the text of an article I was commissioned to write about the Canberra season of Sydney Dance Company’s first program for 2019, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. It was meant also to include a note on the company’s 50 year history. Sadly and disappointingly, a truncated version, with no images, appeared in The Canberra Times. It was not what I was led to believe would happen.

Several people in the dance community were generous in their support of what I was writing, so I am posting the story as it was meant to be, and I’m including some images: an article on dance without images hardly makes sense.

Sydney Dance Company turns 50 in 2019 and it’s time to commemorate the exceptional endurance of one of the country’s favourite contemporary dance companies. It’s time, too, to celebrate Sydney Dance Company’s bold commitment to the new in the performing arts. The company’s current artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, calls that commitment ‘the continued investment the company has made in new Australian work over its 50-year history’. 

Shane Carroll, former dancer with the company during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy, has been engaged in digging deep into the history of the company. She has come up with some astonishing figures. In addition to the creation of 250 new works, over 50 years Sydney Dance Company has commissioned new scores from 38 composers—the very first going to Peter Sculthorpe in 1971. It has also commissioned 124 different designers, employed more than 260 dancers, and has shown the work of about 90 different national and international choreographers.

‘It’s an amazing contribution,’ Carroll says. ‘The company has been a leader in developing a broad view of contemporary dance in Australia and the longevity of the company is incredible. It has also often been a rollicking ride. There have been no safe productions and funding has often been shaky. But the company has just persisted and has continued to push boundaries.’

Sydney Dance Company began quite modestly in 1969 as Ballet in a Nutshell. It was the idea of the then artistic director of the Australian Ballet, Peggy van Praagh, and was led by a foundation member of that company, Suzanne Musitz. Her small team consisted of some dancers from the Australian Ballet School and one pianist. It was essentially a dance in education company taking dance into schools, initially secondary schools in Sydney. A little later, to attract more boys to its sessions, the name was changed to Athletes and Dancers. 

The group grew into a fully-fledged dance company named the Dance Company (NSW). After being led by Musitz for another few years and then, briefly, by Dutch choreographer Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy was appointed artistic director at the end of 1976. With his artistic associate (now wife) Janet Vernon, Murphy led the company for 30 years. The name change to Sydney Dance Company came in 1979.

The contribution made by Murphy and Vernon over that period raised the profile of the company to that of an internationally respected one whose repertoire was hugely diverse. In the early years of his directorship, Murphy’s choreography included the first evening length work by an Australian contemporary dance company with Poppy (1978), which looked, inventively, at the life of Jean Cocteau; Glimpses (1976), a work based on the art and writing of Norman Lindsay using a score by Margaret Sutherland; and a very daring Daphnis and Chloe (1980) with designs by Kristian Fredrikson to music by Ravel. Murphy’s commitment to new work, often with an Australian theme, and to collaborating with Australian composers and designers, continued until 2007 when he and Vernon resigned.

Rafael Bonachela joined the company as artistic director in 2009. His first program in Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary year consists of a new work of his own, Cinco; another brand-new work, Neon Aether, from Gabrielle Nankivell; and WOOF from Melanie Lane, which was first seen in 2017 as part of Sydney Dance Company’s experimental choreographic season, New Breed. Canberra audiences will see this program in May.

Cinco, which means five in Spanish, has been created on just five dancers. It is danced to five movements of a string quartet by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, which ‘by chance’ says Bonachela, was written in the 1950s.  Bonachela admits that there is something about numbers that fascinates him. He loves the idea that, in this case, the emphasis on the number five is unusually significant. Fashion design Bianca Spender has created the costumes for Cinco. Bonachela says he has admired her work for some time, especially the way her clothes are both structured and fluid. Spender’s Cinco costumes move beautifully with the body, and play with colour and shape.

Holly Doyle, Chloe Leong and Charmene Yap in Cinco, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Wendell Teodoro

In 2014 Gabrielle Nankivell made a powerful, idiosyncratic statement with Wildebeest for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season. Now she is back with Neon Aether, which was inspired by aspects of the solar system and science fiction. Nankivell’s partner in life, Luke Smiles, has created an electronic score, which is punctured by voices announcing instructions relating to a journey in space. Those instructions coincide with dramatic blackouts from lighting designer Damien Cooper.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Neon Aether'. 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Neon Aether. 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Melanie Lane had a smash hit with WOOF in the New Breed season of 2017, so much so that Bonachela has included it in this 50th anniversary program. It too has a commissioned score, this time by Clark, who is Lane’s partner in life and who prefers to be known, theatrically at least, by just one name. Bonachela describes WOOF as ‘brilliant, powerful and about community and belonging, with a touch of vulnerability.’ Watching it on opening night in Sydney in March it reminded me a little of an absorbing, modern-day Rite of Spring.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in WOOF, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

There are several Canberra connections to celebrate in this current season. Bonachela is now a patron of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. He accepted the invitation last year, mentioning that he wanted to mentor young dancers and adding how impressed he had been with dancers who had come through the various QL2 programs and then joined Sydney Dance Company.

Then there is Melanie Lane. Now with an international reputation, Lane grew up in Canberra and trained at the National Capital Ballet School when it was directed by Janet Karin. Lane recalls Karin’s ongoing interest in new choreography and was inspired to make her own dances as a result. Karin says she felt sure that Lane would go on to choreograph and adds that as a dancer Lane was ‘fluid, sensuous, strong and feminine all in one.’ On opening night of this anniversary program, WOOF was greeted with huge applause and even had Bonachela himself standing, shouting and whistling. Composer of WOOF, Luke Smiles, has a strong connection with Canberra too. He performed as a dancer with Sue Healey’s Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra back in the 1990s.

In addition, Sydney Dance Company, under its various different names, has been touring to Canberra for almost the entire 50 years of its existence. In fact, the company’s first season under the name Dance Company (NSW) was in 1971 in Canberra, when Love 201 with that commissioned score from Peter Sculthorpe was presented.

The program Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is Bonachela’s tribute to Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to the new in dance. But Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to Canberra is definitely something that also deserves to be celebrated by local audiences. Don’t miss it.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2019

Featured image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. Sydney Dance Company

27 March 2019. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay (Sydney)

It is 50 years since Sydney Dance Company (under a different name or two in its early years) gave its first performance. The time had come to commemorate the company’s remarkable longevity, and its absolute commitment to contemporary dance. Rafael Bonachela’s first season for this anniversary year celebrated with a triple bill consisting of a brand new work from Bonachela himself, and works from two female choreographers, Gabrielle Nankivell and Melanie Lane.

The program opened with Nankivell’s Neon Aether, which to me was not the strongest work of the evening, although it was the loudest and the one that included the most confronting elements. It was difficult to fathom exactly what was going on onstage, what the work was ‘about’. The choreographer’s statement that it was ‘an ode to the burning intangibles that fuel our imagination’ didn’t help, and the most confronting bit was that often there was a sudden, long-ish blackout and a recorded announcement (part of the score by Luke Smiles) could be heard during the blackout. The announcement had something to do with a voyage in space. The blackout bit seemed to me to be a somewhat outmoded way of presenting an idea. This aspect of Neon Aether reminded me of William Forsythe’s Artifact, which goes way back to 1984, when dropping the house curtain at various stages throughout the work, and thus obscuring our view of the dancing, seemed an outrageous step forward that made us question many things. Not any more. I found the blackouts in Neon Aether an annoyance. While the dancing was spectacularly good, as we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company, the work just left me a little cold.

Scene from Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Bonachela’s Cinco followed. Made on just five dancers to five movements of a string quartet by Alberto Ginastera, the number five is of course a reference to five decades of dance from Sydney Dance Company. But, like most of Bonachela’s works, it was inspired not by any narrative idea but by the changing patterns and rhythms of the music. Its combination of solos and unison pieces was often filled with the unexpected, but was always a visual delight. And the silken costumes by Bianca Spender were also visually fascinating, flying around the dancers’ bodies with every move those dancers made.

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The absolute highlight of the evening for me was Lane’s somewhat eccentric work WOOF. It began with the twelve dancers who made up the cast grouping themselves and holding the pose for a short time, giving us the opportunity to take in the complexity of those group shapes. What was going on between them? Some of the groupings even seemed ferocious with a large group of dancers growling at a much smaller group.

Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig

As movement took over from stationary groups, I admired Lane’s awareness of the space of the stage and how to fill it, or leave it empty, for maximum effect, not to mention her juxtaposition of movement and stillness. And her movement vocabulary with its tiny runs on half pointe with bent knees, or its group marching, or its eccentric details of head and arms, was fascinating to the point of being exciting. With its emphasis on groups and their interrelationships, along with the often relentless quality of the work, aided by a commissioned score from composer Clark (who does not use a first name on the program), it reminded me of a contemporary version of Rite of Spring. It was an outstanding work that generated an exceptional audience response.

The diversity of material that the dancers were asked to perform in this triple bill was remarkable and, in their usual fashion, they rose to the occasion and looked stupendous throughout.

Michelle Potter, 6 April 2019

Featured image: Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni, and Riley Fitzgerald in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro
Scene from 'Anima', Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Untamed. Sydney Dance Company

19 October 2016. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney

The latest program from Sydney Dance Company—a double bill with the title Untamed—showed once again what a high energy, physically accomplished company Sydney Dance is. Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest opened the evening and opened it in an extraordinary manner with a solo from Bernhard Knauer. ‘The wildebeest as image morphs easily between living animal and fanciful creature’ writes choreographer Nankivell in her program note and Knauer was given movements that were eccentric, idiosyncratic, half human, half beast. The wildebeest was never quite sure of his true nature (or her nature as the case may be since Knauer alternates in the role with Juliette Barton). But the animal struggles to be born into the world with a shudder and a shake and often a kind of liquid movement within those animal limbs.

From the opening solo the work proceeds through a series of further solos, duets, trios and quartets and, against the pack-like, wild and wilful movements, a certain vulnerability creeps in at times when small, intricate movements of the head, hands, fingers and other extremities of the body become visible. Then there are sections where the entire cast moves in a mechanical fashion, like clockwork. And yet, within these sections, we often see a single dancer moving erratically through the order like a misfit in an ordered world. A powerful duet from Todd Sutherland and Holly Doyle had antagonistic overtones while Janessa Dufty stood out throughout the work, especially in her closing solo.

For better or worse we have become accustomed to dark lighting of contemporary dance these days but, for once, Wildebeest’s gloomy lighting (by Benjamin Cisterne), which was punctuated by sudden, sharp, completely unexpected flashes of brightness, was appropriate to the theme of the work. I was lucky, however, to be sitting quite close to the action so I’m not sure how the gloom looked from further back. A soundscape by Luke Smiles rode beautifully with the action. Its sounds were often as startling and unexpected as the movement but, like the lighting, totally appropriate for the nature of the work. Smiles and Nankivell have been working together for several years now and their understanding of each other’s work was clearly evident. I admired Fiona Holley’s simple, easy-flowing, red earth coloured costumes.

Scene from Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

After the extremes and idiosyncracies of Wildebeest, the second work on the program, Rafael Bonachela’s new work, Anima, had something of a romantic feel to it. True, its choreography was highly physical and without a narrative line in the manner we have come to expect from Bonachela. But along with the extended limbs, the partnering involving turning, twisting bodies being flung about, and the fast and thrilling movement around the stage, there were moments that were thoughtful in nature, when a humanistic approach seemed to surface.

Anima opened strongly with a duet between Juliette Barton and Izzac Carroll, which in particular showed off Barton’s delicious, long-limbed extensions and her absolute control of every movement. But at the heart of Anima is a male duet, long and intimate, although punctuated by occasional tension, between Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis. The male duet has become something of a signature element for Bonachela and this one, which required huge stamina and body strength from Eipper and Treklis, was filled with exceptional moments when we had to ponder at the nature of the relationship between the two protagonists.

Group sections broke up the focus on duets, trios and quartets and Sydney Dance Company dancers have a remarkable facility for unison dancing, which always surprises me given the speed at which the dancers are usually asked to move in such sections and the individual qualities Bonachela’s dancers always display in their work. Bonachela’s group sections give me a shiver of excitement.

Scene from 'Anima', Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: ©Pedro Greig

Scene from Anima, Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Lighting for Anima was also by Cisterne and several sections were lit red. Sometimes we also saw abstracted, coloured shapes dancing across the back screen. I’m not sure that these coloured lighting effects offered anything additional to Anima and I would have preferred the more ordered (or less colourful and fanciful) approach that usually marks Cisterne’s designs. There was enough emotion generated by the music from Bulgarian-born, London-based Dobrinka Tabakova, and from Bonachela’s intuitive response to this music, Insight for string trio, created by Tabakova in 2002. Aleisa Jelbart’s white/grey costumes occasionally looked too much like underwear for my liking, but luckily there was so much else to focus on that they didn’t detract too much from the overall experience.

Anima was greeted with tumultuous applause. People stood, a few left their seats and rushed towards the stage, while the dancers taking their bows could not hide their pleasure at this response. But of the two works Wildebeest was, for me, the more thrilling, more creative, more satisfying work.

Scene from Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Michelle Potter, 23 October 2016

Featured image: Scene from Anima, Sydney Dance Company, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

This review was originally published on DanceTabs at this link. 

Those who were lucky enough to see this show on opening night were, I feel sure, taken by the colourful T-shirt worn by Bonachela as he took a curtain call with his collaborators. The message on it read: Say ‘I do’ Down Under.