17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
A year ago Sydney Dance Company was just days away from its first program for 2020, which was to include a new work, Impermanence, by Rafael Bonachela as part of a mixed bill program. But the pandemic struck and the program was cancelled. Impermanence was being created to a score co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet from Bryce Dessner, an American composer based in Paris. The work was initially inspired by the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019, and by the Australian bush fires that began in late 2019. After the program was cancelled Bonachela and Dessner decided to continue their collaboration and develop the work into a full length one. This is the show that opened on 17 February 2021.
Publicity tells us that the work is about transience and fragility, but Dessner’s powerful, driving score, played onstage by the Australian String Quartet seated in an upstage corner, felt to me more like determination to overcome. Similarly, for the most part Bonachela’s choreography was fast-paced, dramatic and powerful and with Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design, with constantly changing colour effects strongly apparent, I found it hard to see the impermanence of it all.
But this is not to say that the work was not engaging. It was. I love watching Bonachela’s amazing ability to show us the unexpected in movement. I love those moments when he has the whole company onstage when we can see unison. Sometimes he has the entire company dancing as one, at other times two groups show us two separate, but still compelling instances of choreographic unison. And having live music played onstage is always something to look forward to, and something on which Bonachela seems to thrive.
As ever, all the dancers performed with their usual and incredible technical skills. But two stood out for me. I couldn’t stop looking at Emily Seymour whose strong balletic background was so clear. Her turns were spectacular and were, although in contemporary mode, perfectly placed and finished. Her truly beautiful rounded arms and smooth line through the body were just breathtaking. Then Jesse Scales looked as though they were so thrilled to be back on stage. Even when standing at the side of stage waiting for their next move their body glowed with pleasure. And Scales used every part of their body to give shape and meaning to the choreography.
The Roslyn Packer Theatre had its COVID plan in place for Impermanence. We checked in with our phones and QR code, there was no mingling in the foyer, we were distanced (slightly) from other audience members, and we were masked-up for the entire show. But what a thrill it was to be back in a live environment watching the kind of spectacular performance we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company. Jesse Scales said it all with their exceptionally detailed movement and their obvious pleasure in performing for an audience again.
Rafael Bonachela is fond of giving his works Spanish names (he is after all a Spaniard by birth). Cuatro is Spanish for ‘four’ and Bonachela’s work entitled Cuatro consisted of four short solos for four artists of Sydney Dance Company. Each separate dance was accompanied by music played by a solo musician from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Much of the creative development was conducted online with the final four outcomes filmed in isolation at the Sydney Dance Company studios in Ultimo.
Each dance was performed in a different space, beautifully designed and lit by Pedro Greig. Greig was also the film-maker. Each dancer wore a variation on a soft, flowing costume designed by Bianca Spender. The fabric colours ranged from very light grey through soft blue to golden yellow and each had some variation on a rolled and twisted design element, usually a part of the costume that crossed the shoulder.
Cuatro 1 was danced by Charmene Yap to an oboe accompaniment played by Diana Doherty. It took place in a confined space of three white walls.
Cuatro 2 featured Davide Di Giovanni performing to a violin accompaniment played by Andrew Haveron. The background this time was less confined with a draped back wall giving a softer look.
Cuatro 3 showed us Juliette Barton dancing to an accompaniment from Umberto Clerici on cello. Barton and Clerici performed in a black performing space that had three panels, made of what looked like small tiles, on each side of the space. The panels were lit with an exquisite golden glow, and often we saw dancer and cellist in shadow.
Cuatro 4 was performed by Chloe Leong with Emma Sholl playing flute. By the time we reached this fourth dance all walls had disappeared and Leong danced in a fine white mist that spread itself widely.
Choreography for all four solos was by Bonachela and each dancer showed his or her astonishing command of Bonachela’s movement style. This time I felt his choreography was slower and more liquid than usual and its qualities of introspection were deeply moving.
I began thinking of, and watching this series of solos as individual works. Each was released separately with a week between each. Eventually, I stopped watching this way and decided to wait until all four had been screened so I could watch the four in one viewing. I’m glad I did this because I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction had I just watched each a week apart.
I did have a favourite solo—that of Barton accompanied by Clerici. The filming was exceptional with its shadows and close-up shots. Barton was technically brilliant and I loved the way Clerici played his cello with his whole body and seemed completely lost in the sound. But what was wonderful about watching the four dances as if they were one work was that, for me anyway, an emotional underpinning emerged. The work began in that enclosed space with Yap sometimes touching the walls as if to highlight an inability to extract herself from the space. It moved to the possibility of emerging with the softer backcloth against which Di Giovanni performed. By Cuatro 3 the blackness of despair was there but the glorious lighting promised hope. By Cuatro 4 we had reached freedom.
Bonachela has always said his works can mean whatever we want them to mean. I love that. Beautiful work from the whole team
Michelle Potter, 20 August 2020
Featured image: Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020
Sydney Dance Company’s second program for 2019, the fiftieth year of existence, began with a short film. Excerpts from the SDC repertoire during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon reminded us of the versatility of the productions during those years when strong narrative works alternated with beautifully abstract productions. These film excerpts, put together by Philippe Charluet, were followed by clips, from the work of Pedro Greig, focusing on the ten years from 2009 during which the company has been led by Rafael Bonachela. Bonachela’s works have never been narrative in nature, but have focused largely on ideas that evoke emotional responses in the audience. But in both eras the choreography has been remarkable and the dancers have been exceptional. Those of us who have been privileged to have watched both eras have been unbelievably lucky.
The live part of the program opened with a revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths, first seen in 2010. This collaboration with Italian composer Ezio Bosso begins and ends with some breathtaking videography from Tim Richardson. In the beginning flecks of white swirl through the air before morphing into one and then two human figures, while at the end of the work the reverse happens—first breath and last breath. In between, a series of movements (six in all) introduce us to various human emotions. At times I felt my hands clenching, at other times I relaxed. A duet between two men had my emotions wavering, the moments of unison had me dancing along (in my mind that is). Such is Bonachela’s ability to use dance to evoke an emotional response. And of course I continue to be surprised at the extraordinary choreographic framework that he uses to create these feelings.
After interval came Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. In this work, which involved SDC alumni from the Murphy/Vernon era and a number of audience members, Obarzanek examined concepts about dance creation, especially how movement is passed on from body to body. There was plenty of interaction between the three groups of performers and, remarkably, the audience members, who wore headphones and had no rehearsal prior to coming on stage from the auditorium, were directed from the wings by Charmene Yap as assistant choreographer.
By the end the three groups had become as one and, while the closing movements and groupings were of necessity quite simple, perhaps over-simplified, the point was made. Across 50 years of dance making, a strong legacy, a proud heritage, and the memories of audiences (represented by the audience members taking part in Us 50) are an essential part of the remarkable organisation that is Sydney Dance Company.
And, as before with the film footage, how privileged were we, who had watched the repertoire of the Murphy/Vernon period, to see the alumni from that time return to show us what amazing artists they still are. Sheree da Costa, glowing with beauty and still with that incredible ability to embrace any movement she is given, opened Us 50 with a short solo. As for other alumni, I wrote about Wakako Asano in 2005 after seeing Grand, ‘Wakako Asano is now such a mature artist gliding from movement to movement and opening and closing the work with mysterious grace.’ It’s still there that mysterious quality. Then, writing about New Blood in 1999, I said of Bradley Chatfield, ‘…his sense of presence on stage … rivals that of any dancer in Australia.’ That presence is also still there. And so with all the other alumni who appeared in Us 50—Kathryn Dunn, Linda Ridgeway, Lea Francis, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Nina Veretennikova, with Simon Turner as stage manager. What a treat.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below is a slightly expanded version of my year-ender for The Canberra Times published as ‘State of dance impressive and varied’ on 24 December 2018. I should add that The Canberra Times‘ arts writers/reviewers are asked to choose five productions only for their year-ender story.
Looking back at 2018 I find, thankfully, that I don’t have to complain too much about the state of dance in the ACT. In 2018, in addition to work from a variety of local companies and project-based groups, dance audiences in Canberra were treated to visits from the Australian Ballet, the Australian Ballet School, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Farm and Sydney Dance Company. Most performances were in traditional venues, but one or two were site specific (notably Australian Dance Party’s production of Energeia performed at the Mount Majura Solar Farm) and, in addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia offered their venues for dance performances. Beyond performance, it was exceptional news that Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, had agreed to become a patron of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth organisation. In a casual conversation with me he mentioned that he had always been impressed with those ex-QL2 dancers who had gone on to perform with Sydney Dance Company and also that he regretted that he had not had a strong mentor himself during his early training. Both thoughts fed into his decision to take on the role of patron.
I have arranged my top five events chronologically according to the month in which they were performed.
RED. Liz Lea Productions
In March Liz Lea presented RED, a work that won her a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award later in the year. It was a powerful, courageous, autobiographical work that touched on Lea’s struggle throughout her career with endometriosis. But beyond that it was distinguished by outstanding choreography from four creators, all of whom highlighted Lea’s particular strengths as a dancer. In addition to Lea herself, choreographic input came from Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo. There was also stunning lighting by Karen Norris; a range of film clips that added context throughout; and strong dramaturgy by Brian Lucas, which gave coherence and clarity to the overall concept. It was a highly theatrical show, which also presented a very human, very moving message.
The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre
In June Australian Dance Theatre returned to the national capital after an absence of more than a decade. The Beginning of Nature, choreographed by artistic director Garry Stewart, focused on the varied rhythms of nature. It was compelling and engrossing to watch. The dancers seemed to defy gravity at times and their extreme physicality was breathtaking. But the work was also an outstanding example of collaboration between Stewart, his dancers, an indigenous consultant familiar with the almost-extinct Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills, and composer Brendan Woithe, who created a remarkable score played live onstage by a string quartet.
Cockfight. The Farm
The Farm, featuring performers Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson, arrived In September with Cockfight. Set in an office situation, and dealing with interpersonal relations within that environment, Cockfight was an exceptional example of physical theatre. Both Webber and Thomson gave riveting performances and the work presented a wide range of ideas and concepts, some filled with psychological drama, others overflowing with humour. It was totally absorbing from beginning to end.
World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions
This Canberra-only event early in October showcased a range of outstanding dancers from across the world in a program of solos and duets, mostly from well-known works from the international ballet repertoire. It belongs in the list of my dance picks for 2018 on the one hand because the artists showed us some spectacular dancing. But it also belongs here because Bravissimo Productions (a newly established Canberra-based production company) had the courage to take on the task of defying convention and certain ingrained ideas about Canberra, including the perceived notion that Canberra equals Parliament and the Public Service and little else, and the constant complaints about performing spaces in the city. Bravissimo brought superstars of the ballet world not to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but to Canberra. The international stars that came were not the worn-out, about-to-retire dancers we so often see here from Russian ballet companies, but stars of today. I hope Bravissimo Productions can keep it up. Canberra is waiting.
MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser and Kailin Yong
MISTwas the standout performance of the year for me. It was one item in Canberra Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary production Happiness is…, which took the stage in mid October. As a whole, Happiness is… was somewhat uneven in the quality of its choreography and performance, but MIST, listed as a duet in the form of a pas de deux between a dancer and a musician, was simply sensational. And it really was a pas de deux with violinist Kailin Yong moving around the stage, and even lying down at times as he played and improvised, and with dancer Anca Frankenhaeuser involving herself with his playing in a way that I have never seen anywhere before. With choreography by Stephanie Burridge, an ex-Canberran now living in Singapore, it also carried an underlying theme about relationships between people. It was an exceptional concept from Burridge, beautifully realised by Frankenhaeuser and Yong.
I hope we can keep moving forward in Canberra in 2019 with dance that is inclusive and collaborative, and also theatrically and intellectually satisfying. A varied program of dance in 2018 showed us the possibilities.
I had the good fortune to see quite a lot of dance outside of Canberra including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as outside of Australia in London and, briefly, in Wellington, New Zealand. Leaving London and Wellington aside since I am focusing on dance seen in Australia, the standout show for me was the La Scala production of Don Quixote, staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland’s outstanding initiative, its International Series. Apart from some seriously beautiful dancing, especially from the corps de ballet who seemed to understand perfectly how to move in unison (even in counterpoint) and how to be aware of fellow dancers, I loved that extreme pantomime was left out. As I wrote in my review it was a treat to see a Don Quixote who actually presented himself as a quixotic person rather than a panto character.
I was also intrigued by Greg Horsman’s new take on La Bayadèrefor Queensland Ballet. Horsman set his version in India during the British occupation. The story was cleverly reimagined and beautifully redesigned by Gary Harris, yet it managed to retain the essence of the narrative and, in fact, the story was quite gripping as it sped along.
But for me the standout production/performance from outside Canberra was Alice Topp’s Aurum for the Australian Ballet and performed in their Verve season in Melbourne. It was filled with emotion from beginning to end, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In one section it had the audience so involved that all we could do was shout and cheer with excitement. Choreographically it was quite startling, moving as it did from surging, swooping movement to a final peaceful, but stunningly realised resolution. A real show-stopper.
On a double bill program it would be hard to find two dance works as diametrically opposed, or so it seemed on the surface, as Rafael Bonachela’s Frame of Mind and Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever. Together they made up Sydney Dance Company’s newest season, which goes under the umbrella name of Forever & Ever.
Frame of Mind is not new, having had its inaugural season in Sydney in 2015. Then I was especially taken with the way the work was structured. I wrote on DanceTabs:
I loved how this work was structured choreographically. More and more Bonachela makes use of the full company in segments where unison dancing dominates. Against this he gives us powerful solos—solos by David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper were especially strong—or fluidly moving quartets, trios and duets. Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales had an especially smooth duet filled with swirling, circular movements. The work was also nicely paced, with Cisterne’s lighting providing moments of half-light as visual contrast.
Although there have been several cast changes since then, the structure of Frame of Mind remains as beautifully organised as ever. But this time I was sitting in the front row of the Roslyn Packer Theatre and I had a very different view of the performance. I could not help but be astonished at the incredible dancing of every single performer. Their attention to even the tiniest detail of Bonachela’s choreography was masterful, and Bonachela’s choreography is certainly filled with detail, and with all kinds of unexpected moves on unexpected parts of the body. I was struck too by the extreme physicality of the dancers, their finely honed musculature, their at times unbelievable flexibility, and their unwavering commitment to perfection. All these features have always been obvious but from row A in the theatre these qualities came home with much greater emphasis.
It was also a thrill to have live music with the Australian String Quartet playing three of Bryce Dessner’s captivating compositions for strings.
Bonachela’s choreography has always been characterised by a satisfying flow of movement. So it was something of a shock to be confronted by Hamilton’s much more sharply angular, robotic choreography and static poses in Forever & Ever, which was the second work on the program. At times I was reminded of clockwork toys and, with the poses, there were moments when I thought either of Lego figures or, at the other end of the spectrum, suprematist images (from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, for example).
Jesse Scales led the cast of Forever & Ever and did so with strength and clarity from the beginning, which began on a half-lit stage before the audience had quietened down after the interval. And did they quieten down when suddenly, and without warning, the stage lit up with a bang!
Then there were the costumes. The elegant, black, subtly diverse, easy-to-dance-in costumes by Ralph Myers for Frame of Mind stood in dramatic contrast to the costumes for Forever & Ever by Paula Levis. These latter costumes were of all shapes and colours and included long, black hooded gowns with sharply pointed, cone-shaped white ‘gloves’ (for want of a better word); white monks’ garb (the ‘monks’ also carried lanterns which lit up occasionally); white, puffy jackets over black and white zig-zag patterned pants; mustard yellow jumpers, short black pants; and lots more. And costumes were freely and frequently removed to reveal new items underneath them. (You can see the discarded items piled up at the back of the stage in the featured image to this review).
But in the end the costuming, as incredible as it was, bore little relation to anything, a bit like the theory of deconstruction where meaning is meaningless. Discarding one costume for another, willy-nilly, made it clear that no costume had an intrinsic meaning within the work, even though we could draw conclusions about them using our memory of other things. Which brings me to the next point. Despite the obvious differences between the two works, there was something similar about them. Bonachela always suggests that his abstract works are open to interpretation. Sometimes he mentions his own inspiration behind a particular work, but always we are left to find our own emotional ‘meaning’ in his works. With Hamilton, at least in this case, his postmodern technique of making references to many things meant that no one aspect seemed dominant. So, as with Bonachela’s work, we were left to make up a meaning for ourselves, if we felt the need. Or, we could simply say there is no definitive interpretation of anything, which seemed to me to be in the spirit of Hamilton’s work.
This program was remarkable for showing us the breadth of what contemporary dance can accomplish. But the most exciting bit was that both works were stunningly danced.
In his first full-length work for several years, Rafael Bonachela has made a startling, extraordinarily powerful dance piece to an original score by Nick Wales (extra music by Peteris Vasks), with lighting from the remarkable Damien Cooper and production design from David Fleischer. The title ab [intra] (Latin: from within) we are told refers to ‘the energy transfer between the internal and the external’. The external energy is absolutely clear from beginning to end in ab [intra]. The internal aspect giving rise to the external we can only ponder. But Bonachela likes us to ponder (I think).
Choreographically the piece has two main duets, several shorter duets and trios, a major solo, and several sections for the entire company. The standout section for me was the duet between Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni. The partnering was spectacular, as was the energy of the relationship between the two dancers. It was almost R & J à la Bonachela. I especially admired it for the clarity of movement it contained. The duet that preceded it, danced by Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll, also had some amazing partnering and it was impossible not to be stunned by the contortions of the body that it contained. How did those two dancers get into and then extract themselves from some of those moves? But quite honestly I preferred the cleaner, and yet still highly physical, look of the Yap/Di Giovanni duet.
Another choreographic highlight was a solo danced by Nelson Earl. Earl emerged to take centre stage from a line of dancers who walked solemnly onto the performance space to stand in a row around the back and sides of the stage. His solo was characterised by stretched lines of the body and was largely without the curving fluidity of much of the rest of the choreography. At times I even started to think of Charlie Chaplin’s rather eccentric style of moving! But Earl performed with great panache and the rather different look of the choreography was refreshing.
I continue to admire the way Rafael Bonachela handles large groups of dancers. In ab [intra] there were several occasions when the whole company (or sometimes almost the whole company) were onstage together. It is fascinating to see how at times Bonachela has his larger groups of dancers look like a collection of individuals in different poses, making different moves, only for the group suddenly to be moving in unison. It is also fascinating to look harder at what the dancers are doing because it often is that what looks different is actually the same move done with back to the audience, or facing another direction.
As far as staging went, ab [intra] was distinguished by a certain restrained power. The lighting was always quite startling and consisted variously of haze, brightness, strong downlights, and occasionally a bank of small, bright lights that moved up and down limiting and then expanding on the space the dancers occupied. Costuming was quite minimal in appearance. Everything added to the unfolding of the work.
In a brief conversation I had earlier with Bonachela about ab [intra] he mentioned that he hoped the work might continue to be part of the Sydney Dance Company repertoire. I think it is probably one of those ‘giving’ works in which audiences will see more on second and subsequent viewings. So I hope Bonachela’s wish for it to continue to be shown is realised. At times it seemed slightly too long (at 70 mins) but mostly the strong staging, the remarkable and constantly changing look of the choreography, and the exceptional physicality of the dancers made it one of Bonachela’s (and Sydney Dance Company’s) strongest works to date.
It has just been announced that Canberra’s youth dance organisation QL2 Dance has a new patron, Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. He joins Shirley McKechnie, AO, as co-patron following the retirement of Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC and Lady Deane who had been much respected patrons for fourteen years.
Bonachela has worked with many former QL2 dancers some of whom have joined Sydney Dance Company to pursue their professional careers, including Sam Young Wright now dancing in Germany with Jacopo Godani’s Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company. Other alumni include Daniel Riley now dancing with and choreographing for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Jack Ziesing formerly with Expressions Dance Company, now with Dancenorth, and James Batchelor, independent artist. Bonachela has recognised the qualities of alumni of QL2 saying:
It is an honour and a privilege to be the QL2 Dance Patron for 2018. QL2 Dance truly sets the example for quality dance in Canberra and nationwide. Over my choreographic career I have worked with many artists that have passed through their doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard; an invaluable asset to the local community. I look forward to joining and supporting QL2 on their journey into the future.
Quantum Leap, the QL2 performing arm, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary from 9–11 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre with a production called Two Zero. Choreography will be by Eliza Sanders, Stephen Gow, Sara Black, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Dean Cross and Daniel Riley, with the Quantum Leap Ensemble.
Dame Gillian Lynne (1926–2018)
I was sorry to hear of the death of Gillian Lynne early in July, although I had heard when last in London that she was not at all well. In my April Dance Diary I recalled briefly her work for Robert Helpmann in Australia and more recently for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and also commented on how much I enjoyed reading her autobiography A dancer in wartime. Here is a link to an obituary published in London by The Guardian.
Some time ago now (in 2011 to be exact) when I was working on an article for Dance Research about the Dandré-Levitoff tours, I posted an article on Alexander Levitoff. Very recently a comment on that article was made and in it was included an extremely interesting catalogue of photographs, including some of Levitoff. But there are many others that I have not seen elsewhere. Here is the link to the 2011 post. Scroll down for the comments and the link.
Press for July 2018
‘Dark Emu lacking in structure.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2018, p. 20. Online version at this link.
An expanded version of my Canberra Times review of ORB is below. The shorter review is as yet unpublished. [Update: The review appeared in print on 2 June 2017. Here is a link to the online version]
Canberra Theatre, 25 May 2017
Full Moon, choreography Cheng Tsung-Lung, music Lim Giong, costume design Fan Huai-Chih, lighting design Damien Cooper. Ocho, choreography Rafael Bonachela, music Nick Wales featuring vocals by Rrawun Maymuru, costume and set design David Fleischer, lighting design Damien Cooper.
The dancers of Sydney Dance Company have once again stunned audiences with their extraordinary physical skills in a double bill program with the over-arching title of ORB. Explosive, athletic, swirling, superbly controlled, fast-paced, and many other expressions come to mind. Can their techniques get any better? I ask this question of myself every season and every season I ponder how they can continue to perform with such passion and power. ORB can give huge pleasure from thinking purely of the physical execution of the choreography.
But the program becomes totally fascinating if one delves a little further. Take Full Moon, which opens the program, for example. Each of the eight dancers in this work is dressed differently, and spectacularly so by Taiwanese fashion designer Fan Huai-Chih. And it turns out that each represents a different character associated in some way with the moon.
Latisha Sparks, dressed in a bright red, tiered and flounced dress (red being the colour of luck and happiness), represented a female warrior, with a nod to the Hindu deity Shiva who often is portrayed with a crescent moon on his forehead. Shiva is also said to have ‘matted hair’ and Sparks’ hair certainly looked rather tousled on the night I saw the show. Was she wearing a wig, I asked myself? Then, choreographically, Sparks’ continuous whirling arm and hand movements recalled the multiple arms of some representations of Shiva, and her writhing and rolling movements across the stage suggested engagement as a warrior in battle.
Jesse Scales was also fabulously dressed in a silvery-white dress of clean-cut but off-centre lines. She was the rabbit in the moon from Chinese mythology. Her movements were often tiny, darting and filled with small jumps.
There was very little contact between each of the characters and, as they performed their individual dances, there was often stillness or just a hint of slow, controlled movement from the other characters. Bernhard Knauer in fact spent much of the time frozen in a meditative position.
The whole work was ablaze with references to deities and mythological creatures, and was filled with juxtapositions of movement and stillness.
Ocho, on the other hand, did not focus on stillness, even though there were times when several of the dancers were enclosed inside David Fleischer’s industrial-looking concrete and glass box that comprised the set: they mostly watched other dancers performing outside the box. Bonachela made Ocho (eight in Spanish) in his eighth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company and has used eight dancers in the work. But, like most of Bonachela’s works, there is nothing particularly significant in a narrative sense about the title. Ocho, the work, is contemporary dance in which we are left to have an opinion of our own, which may or may not be the same as anyone else’s.
I found the work, with its grinding score by Nick Wales, and its often-gloomy lighting by Damien Cooper, unsettling and harsh. This feeling was perhaps accentuated because, while watching it, it was impossible not to be thinking of the capriciousness of Full Moon. As well, Ocho‘s down-to-earth costuming (by David Fleischer) couldn’t have been more different from that of Full Moon. But then Ocho was meant to have an industrial feel to it and it succeeded in doing just that.
What was interesting was the fact that Bonachela used his dancers in this work more as soloists than as members of an ensemble—Charmene Yap had the standout solo for me. Nevertheless, there were some sections in which unison movement shone and these sections seemed to fit the music better, or at least made it seem less harsh. Another notable feature, this time of the score, was Wales’ incorporation of vocals from indigenous singer Rrawun Maymuru. I was expecting the score to change pace somewhat at this stage, but the change was to my mind only minimal. The volume and pounding quality continued.
Sydney Dance Company continues to push the boundaries of contemporary dance and for that Bonachela deserves admiration. We, as audience members, need to be pushed into new dance experiences, and Sydney Dance Company certainly does that for us.