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
2019 Dance Division staff

Dance diary. March 2019

  • Jerome Robbins Dance Division

In March I had the pleasure of being in New York for the first of a number of events to celebrate 75 years since the foundation of what is now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. In the featured image, curators seated (left to right) are Madeleine Nichols, Michelle Potter, Jan Schmidt and current curator Linda Murray. Current staff are standing. Founding curator Genevieve Oswald was unable to attend and, sadly, died two weeks later in her home in California aged 97.

The event began with a tribute to Gegi Oswald with a screening of various images relating to her work, and with an interview with her by Walter Terry, which she gave at one stage during her more than 40 years as curator. Then we curators were asked to give our responses to several questions posed to us about our time with the Division. It was a nostalgic evening and wonderful to catch up with friends and colleagues to celebrate the work and vision of the Division.

Mind you it was freezing in New York. This is what it looked like in Central Park on 2 March!

Central Park under snow, March 2019
  • BOLD II 2019, Canberra

Circumstances of various kinds meant that I was unable to attend many of this year’s BOLD events. But of the events I did attend I was especially interested in Paige Gordon’s talk ‘Who’s Counting?’ in which she discussed her present work in Perth and related it back to her earlier experiences in Canberra.

It was also a treat to be at Sue Healey’s showing of several of her current initiatives with dance on film. In particular I admired her short film Weerewa. Portrait of a landscape shot in the area of Lake George just north of Canberra and recently shown at Le FiFA festival in Canada.

Still from Weerewa. Portrait of a Landscape

  • A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back a book by David Hallberg

In March I came across David Hallberg’s autobiographical book, which I had not known of previously even though it was first published in 2017. It was of course of particular interest because of Hallberg’s connections with Australia, and in particular with his rehabilitation by the team at the Australian Ballet, Paul Baird Colt, Megan Connelly and Sue Mayes, which he discusses at towards the end of the book.

Hallberg also mentions arriving in Australia for the first time and being taken aback by the beauty of Sydney Harbour from the sky: ‘The Sydney Opera House and its surroundings, first viewed from fifteen thousand feet in the air, trumped all photos I had ever seen. Here was Australia!’ It reminded me of the photo of Hallberg taking a pose on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, and of seeing him dance in Cinderella in 2013.

David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in 'Cinderella'. Photo: Wendell Teodoro, 2013
David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro, 2013

His book is also fascinating for its insights into the exhausting schedule of those like Hallberg who travel constantly between engagements.

  • Bonchela/Nankivell/Lane

My review of Sydney Dance Company’s latest show, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is in the pipeline (and late due to other commitments including a preview piece on the show for The Canberra Times). It’s coming soon but I can say now that I was stunned by Melanie Lane’s thrilling WOOF.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Melanie Lane’s WOOF, 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig
  • Press for March 2019

‘Indigenous fusion fizzles with styles.’ Preview of Djuki mala. The Canberra Times, 27 March 2019, p. 26. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2019

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc.

12 August 2018. The Studio, Sydney Opera House

SPLIT began with two dancers, one wearing a rather drab, blue-grey dress, the other naked, performing on a marked-out square on the floor of the Studio, the Sydney Opera House’s most intimate performing space. Both dancers executed the same movements in unison. At times the choreography consisted of small movements of the arms, even just the fingers. At other times it gathered momentum and was almost wild as arms flew up and around. Sometimes it was done on the spot. Other times it moved around the marked-out square. The dancers were astonishing, both of them, in keeping together no matter what the choreography encompassed. They reminded me of the best Cunningham dancers whose sense of ‘body time’ produces similar qualities.

But, in this opening section, what fascinated me more than anything else was how different the choreography looked on the naked dancer (Lilian Steiner) from the view one had of it on the clothed dancer (Melanie Lane). On the naked body the choreography showed how remarkable and articulate the dancing body can be. This is not at all to take away from the performance of Lane but it was a shock to see how much of the mechanics and beauty of Lucy Guerin’s choreography was lost with a covered up torso (as naive as that might sound).

After this opening, and also longest section, the splits occurred. Over the course of the performance the dancers stopped several times and, using white tape that adhered to the floor, divided into two the space in which they had been dancing. After several such divisions, the space was so small that the show came to an inevitable end. And of course as the space got smaller the connections between the dancers was affected, as of course was their freedom to move.

But, while the split caused by these divisions was spatially determined, there was also an emotional split between the dancers. The  unison dancing gave way to what was a kind of anger-driven connection between them. There were times when silent screams seemed to fill the air and in one tortured moment it looked like Steiner was ripping out Lane’s insides and eating them. A few recurring motifs indicated ongoing conflict.

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

But in my mind there was also a split in Guerin’s approach. At times she seemed to have made SPLIT from a totally intellectual point of view. The beautiful unison of the opening section was quite matter of fact in many respects and throughout that opening section there was no real emotional connection between the dancers and us—no change of facial expression for example. And the spatial division made in subsequent sections was also quite matter of fact. It was simple geometry. Even the timing was intellectually motivated with each section being half as long as the preceding one. So how then did we sit on the edge of our seats as the work progressed? That effect was not matter of fact but emotional involvement. Extraordinary really.

Music was by London-based electronic musician Scanner and was just a two and a half-minute sample on a loop. (I read this in an interesting article about Guerin and her musical tastes in the August 2018 edition of Limelight). It was relentless, as one might expect, but its match with the choreography was absorbing. I also enjoyed being drawn in by the lighting (Paul Lim), which moved between down lights and side lights, with the latter projecting shadows of the dancers onto a white screen at one side of the performance area.

SPLIT was a totally absorbing 45 minute (or so) show and was brilliantly danced by Lane and Steiner. I look forward to Lucy Guerin’s next show and regret it has been so long since I saw her work.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2018

Featured image: SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: Gregory Lo