My review of the premiere of Ascent, the latest triple bill program from Sydney Dance Company, has been posted on Dance Australia. See this link.
Two of the three items in the program were world premieres. The third, Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever, was first staged by Sydney Dance Company in 2018. One of the most interesting features of Ascent was in fact seeing Forever & Ever once more. When I reviewed it earlier on this website—see this link—it was the extraordinary costuming that stood out for me. Seeing the work again I was prepared for the costumes, and the way they changed and changed over the course of the work. So this time there were other things to look into, in particular the pounding score by Julian Hamilton, and the remarkable choreography, especially that for the closing scene and how well it reflected that score (and vice versa).
Below are images from Rafael Bonachela’s I Am-ness, which opened the program, and from Marina Mascarell’s The Shell, a Ghost, the Host and a Lyrebird, which was the middle work. They complement the images available on the Dance Australia page.
2023 marks Rafael Bonachela’s fifteenth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company and he has announced that he will continue in the role for another five years. The 2023 season will open with a triple bill called Ascent co-commissioned by the Canberra Theatre Centre. As such it will have its opening performances in Canberra followed by a season at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the House.
Ascent will feature a brand-new work by Bonachela, the return of Forever and Ever by Antony Hamilton, first shown in 2018, and a world premiere by Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell. Of the program Bonachela says, ‘After the challenges of the past few years, I am so pleased to again be commissioning an international artist whose works have garnered critical acclaim around the world, alongside showcasing the work of a brilliant Australian choreographer.’
And I am so pleased that Canberra will be the city hosting the premiere of Ascent. Sydney Dance Company has been touring to Canberra pretty much annually (last year, 2021, is the only exception that stands out in my mind) since the 1970s. It is great to see this initiative, for which we must acknowledge the Canberra Theatre Trust for its co-commission.
Further information on the 2023 season is available on the Sydney Dance Company website. It includes information on the company’s regional tour, and its season of Up Close, a new venture to bring the company and audiences closer together and which will include a new work from Bonachela called Somos (meaning ‘we are’ in Spanish).
Launch of Glimpses of Graeme
Hobart, more specifically the Battery Point Community Hall, was the site for the launch of my latest book, Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy. The event was beautifully hosted by the Hobart Bookshop and it was a full house for the conversation between Graeme and me, which was moderated by Lucinda Sharp. Also featured were two short excerpts from works created for MADE by Murphy and danced by Sue Pickard and Laura Della-Pasqua, the official launch by Shirley Gibson from MADE, and a book signing.
In the image below, taken at the end of the event, see (l-r) Lucinda Sharp, dancer Susan Pickard, Michelle Potter, Graeme Murphy, Bronwyn Chalke (owner of Hobart Bookshop), dancer Laura Della-Pasqua (at rear), Shirley Gibson from MADE who did the official launch, and Janet Vernon.
Copies of Glimpses of Graeme are available from FortySouth online book store at this link.
Eileen Kramer turns 108
Early in November Eileen Kramer, once a dancer with Gertrud Bodenwieser, celebrated her 108th birthday. These days she works closely with film maker Sue Healey and a group of close friends in Sydney, where she currently lives.
See this tag for posts about Kramer on this site. My favourite is a link to a film made by Healey in 2017, which won an Australian Dance Award. Happy returns to Eileen Kramer.
News from James Batchelor
James Batchelor’s Shortcuts to familiar places premiered in Berlin in October and was toured to Bangkok in November. Batchelor has recently shared two comments on the work, including one from Australian dance artist Alice Heyward. Heyward’s essay is beautifully and thoughtfully written and constructed and so worth reading. Here is the link.
It has been Rafael Bonachela’s long-term ambition to have return seasons of his 2018 work ab [intra]. He achieved that ambition this year with a well-received season in France and, more recently, with a Sydney season that opened on 2 June at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. Return seasons for contemporary works are unusual, but then ab [intra] is an unusual work and definitely worthy of more than one season.
Seeing ab [intra] this time was a rather different experience from that of 2018. The cast was quite different for a start, and I was also sitting much closer to the stage, which gave me quite a new take on the work. Although the work is meant to be quite abstract in the sense that Bonachela says that the work is ‘a representation of energy’, sitting close to the stage gave me a strong feeling of there being an expressive, human element, one of personal feelings between people. This was probably most apparent in a duet between Chloe Leong and Davide Di Giovanni where an element of pleasure in the company of another seemed to pervade. This was made stronger by the music (Nick Wales), which seemed quite romantic at this point.
Being closer also gave me a new feeling about the lighting (Damien Cooper). The darkness that enveloped those dancers who occasionally moved to the front of the stage and turned their backs to the audience achieved a strong contrast with dancers further upstage, a contrast that I didn’t notice to the same extent in 2018.
But as is characteristic of Bonachela’s work, the overriding element throughout the evening was the exceptional physicality of the dancers. They never cease to amaze with their ability to perform Bonachela’s demanding choreography with the utmost skill and dynamism. The first duet between Jacopo Grabar and Emily Seymour was virtuosic in the extreme and I was incredibly moved by Jesse Scales who performed (amongst other sections) the closing solo. And I always admire the way Bonachela uses groups, sometimes working in unison, sometimes breaking out from those moments only to return to a unified group again.
It was a real pleasure to see ab [intra] again and to have the opportunity to see some sections and aspects of the production differently. In my review of the work in 2018 I remarked that I thought it was probably one of those ‘giving’ works. It clearly was so for me in 2022. The opening night performance was given a long and rowdy standing ovation.
The dance world is agog with the news that Daniel Riley is to take over the directorship of Australia’s longest standing contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Theatre, when Garry Stewart retires from the role at the end of 2021. Riley traces his bloodline to the Wiradjuri clan of Western New South Wales, particularly around Wellington and Dubbo. As such he is the first Indigenous director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT).
But, as Riley told a Dubbo-based journalist in 2014, he did not grow up ‘on country’ but in Canberra. He went to Telopea Park High School and Canberra College and he began dance classes with Jacqui Hallahan at the then Canberra Dance Development Centre.
A fact barely mentioned in the stories that have so far surrounded Riley’s appointment is that he is in fact an alumnus of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation—a place were the nurturing of future dance artists is of prime importance. One of QL2’s current patrons is the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and he recognised QL2’s impact on dance in Australia when, following his acceptance of the role of patron, he said:
I have worked with many artists that have passed through [QL2’s] doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer[s] to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard.
Riley joined QL2 in 1999. It happened as the result of a suggestion from Elizabeth Dalman, artistic director of ADT from 1965-1975, and her colleague Vivienne Rogis, both of whom had worked on a project with Riley’s father in the 1990s. In 1999 QL2 had just started up and Riley performed in the very early productions, Rough Cuts and On the Shoulders of Giants. He then danced in every QL2 project from 1999 to 2003 before taking up a degree course at QUT in 2004. While undertaking his degree he returned whenever possible to Canberra and worked as a choreographer for various QL2 projects, which he has continued to do throughout his professional career to date.
His commissioned work Where we gather, made in 2013 for the QL2 program Hit the Floor Together, explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. In performance it showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It was remounted in 2018 as part of QL2’s 20th anniversary, Two Zero.
Most recently Riley was back at QL2 in January 2021 on a residency where he continued work on an independent project still in the planning stage.
But of course his work as a professional dancer and choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which he joined 2007 after graduating from QUT, as well as his his work with Leigh Warren and Dancers, Sydney Dance Company, Chunky Move, and companies overseas, including Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast (now Teac Damsa), have opened up new horizons.
I have strong memories of the first work he choreographed for Bangarra in 2010. Called Riley, it was a celebration of the photography of a cousin, Michael Riley. What was especially impressive was the way in which Riley’s choreography looked quite abstract and yet also managed to link back to the photographs, which were projected during the work. Then, I cannot forget the strength of his performance as Governor Macquarie in Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq, and also his role as Governor Philip in Stephen Page’s Bennelong, both productions for Bangarra.
I also was interested in Reign, a work he made for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season in 2015.
Reign examined the idea of women in power and the forces that often end their reign. Choreographically it seemed to have strong Indigenous overtones. It began with Janessa Dufty covering her limbs with sand from a pile in a downstage corner of the performing space. It recalled an early section of Bangarra’s production of Ochres when a dancer uses yellow ochre in a similar fashion. Much of the movement, which was organic in look and usually quite grounded, also seemed Bangarra-inspired. And yet the theme seemed quite Western to me and I struggled to reconcile the movement with the theme. Later I began to wonder whether it mattered what vocabulary was used for what theme and was impressed and moved by the strength and very clear structure of the work.
So what will Riley bring to Australian Dance Theatre? Looking at the way he has worked over the years with QL2, he will bring I am sure the same integrity and respect for his colleagues that has brought him back over and over again to the organisation that developed his skills, gave him an understanding of a collaborative manner of working, and that realised that a future in dance lay before him. Thinking of the way he dances, always inhabiting a role with strength and understanding, I suspect he will be an excellent coach for the dancers in the company. And considering, on the one hand, the themes he has chosen for his choreographed works, which so often examine the diverse social and cultural roles of the people around him, and, on the other hand, the way his choreographed works have all been so clearly and strongly structured, I feel he will bring a huge strength of purpose to ADT.
But no one could put it better than Elizabeth Dalman, founding artistic director of ADT. She has said:
He is a wonderful performer, a talented choreographer and already has a great vision for the company. ADT has a long tradition as a revolutionary company pushing boundaries and presenting innovative and exciting works. Daniel plans to champion diversity and develop the company’s cross- and inter-cultural potentials. From the very beginning we set out to be a company exploring our Australian identity, our Australian artistic expression and cultural diversity, so I feel this is a strong continuation of the original aims of the company.
Michelle Potter, 10 June 2021
Featured image: Promotional image for Australian Dance Theatre’s appointment of Daniel Riley as artistic director.
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.
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.