Shared Frequencies. Sydney Dance Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 10 April 2011

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

Darcey and Rafael in conversation

The ticket said ‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’. The menu cover said ‘Dance—collaboration, creativity and choreography’. A tall order? This luncheon event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s current exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume featured former Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell, now living with her family in Sydney, and Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the revamped Sydney Dance Company. So what happened?

Well, about 200 people gathered in Gandel Hall, the Gallery’s new-ish public event space. Seated at round tables accommodating nine or ten people per table, we started with a main course, a most acceptable meal given that it clearly needed to be prepared in advance. Then, as dessert was brought in, Darcey and Rafael, made their way to the stage and, seated in armchairs, began to talk about dance. So far fairly predictable. Things began to get interesting as dance became the focus.

Some footage was shown. We saw the amazing Ms Bussell, with those incredibly articulate arms and legs not to mention face and entire body, in excerpts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst, which Australian audiences were lucky enough to see when Ross Stretton brought the Royal Ballet to Australia in 2001, then in parts of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act III, and finally in the last pas de deux from Manon. Footage of Bonachela’s recent works followed, including segments from We Unfold and 6 Breaths.

The conversation centred for a while on the similarities between classical and contemporary dance in terms of the athleticism required by dancers whatever style they are performing, and on the nature of collaboration. Bonachela stressed his aesthetic of commissioning artistic collaborators to produce new work and outlined the importance of moving the art form forward through the creation of new work. Bussell introduced a certain degree of humour as she recounted the trials of rehearsal and the pitfalls (and pleasures) of performance. They both showed a beautifully human side of themselves.

But perhaps the most interesting moments came when the floor was opened up to questions. For me there were three particularly provocative questions. The first concerned narrative in contemporary dance. Did it exist? And was its lack (or apparent lack outside of ballet) what differentiated contemporary dance from ballet? Bonachela’s answer was beautifully phrased. ‘I believe’, he said ‘that the body has a narrative and I am interested in finding it through my choreography. I want to engage with the audience in an emotional way. I am interested in ideas and think the body is a strong communicative tool.’ He did add however, tongue in cheek, that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and want to make a narrative work!

The second question of particular interest to me concerned the Australian Ballet and its now apparently entrenched decision not to perform in Canberra. How, asked the audience member posing the question, do we continue to engage with ballet when the flagship company denies Canberra audiences the opportunity to see Australian Ballet performances other than by spending large amounts of money to travel out of Canberra? Bussell rightly outlined the various problems associated with touring especially by major companies. But because she may not be aware of the situation, she didn’t mention the Australian Ballet’s apparent problems with the size and nature of the Canberra Theatre’s stage, nor its perceived issues with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But she did say that in the end it is up to us, the people of Canberra, to make it known that we do constitute an audience for ballet and that we want to see performances by the main company, not only those of the Dancers Company or specially contrived one-off events. Well, I’m not sure that any movement from the people would have the slightest effect.

And the third question of particular interest to me concerned the difference in physicality between the dancers of the Ballets Russes era and those of today. It is clear from watching old footage from the 1930s that the dancers who came to Australia between 1936 and 1940 were different in musculature, in technique and in the performance values they brought to the stage. But probably the luncheon conversation was not the forum in which to elaborate on the various changes we see in the way dancers look and perform today. The responses petered out a little. Another occasion perhaps?

The National Gallery of Australia has provided some inspiring events associated with its Ballet Russes exhibition. This was one of them. May there be more events where an audience feels free to ask and comment in the way it did at this event.

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2011

Rafael Bonachela’s dancers

Last week a group of dancers from Sydney Dance Company (SDC) made a brief guest appearance on So you think you can dance Australia. They performed a short excerpt from 6 Breaths, the most recent work created on them by their artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Without wishing to detract from the six dancers who had reached one of the last stages of the So you think you can dance competition, the SDC dancers were absolutely mesmerising. With their streamlined bodies, clearly defined musculature and eloquent limbs it was clear that they were reaping the benefits of strong leadership and vision and, as well, of a particular kind of dance teaching.

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in 6 Breaths. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of Sydney Dance Company

I was lucky that I had an interview set up with Bonachela the following weekend for an article to be published elsewhere, so I couldn’t wait to ask what was happening in the SDC studios. What was producing dancers with such an exceptional capacity to articulate movement and with such a clear sense of focus? I guess I should have seen the writing on the wall (or on the dancers’ bodies) and twigged that Merce Cunningham was in there somewhere.

Bonachela told me that his dancers take both classical ballet and Cunningham technique classes in fairly equal proportions. Cunningham technique, he said, gives the torso extra strength and flexibility. Springing to his feet he demonstrated a classical attitude (think of the familiar statue of Mercury), and then the way the same pose can be used by Cunningham where the spine, still elongated, can be pitched forward in a totally different, contemporary alignment (think of Cunningham’s Beach Birds or Beach Birds for Camera).

Watching 6 Breaths in full shortly afterwards, I looked on with this new knowledge and, while Bonachela is absolutely right about the torso, his dancers also show that every part of the body is an articulate component of the choreography. In addition, they have that rare ability to highlight the space in and through which the body moves and which surrounds each part of the body. Their movements have ‘weight’—and I don’t mean here that they are heavy! Both the notion that every part of the body can be articulate, and that the body moves in space, are deeply embedded in Cunningham’s work.

And lest this should sound as though 6 Breaths is choreographically dry and abstracted, I have to record what is perhaps my favourite moment in the work. Chen Wen enters quietly from a downstage wing. Coming to a halt, still on the side of the stage space, he places two hands on his right hip and slowly lifts his right leg to arabesque, foot flexed at the end of the arabesque line. The ‘hands on the hip’ move is a very deliberate one, as if to show that when the leg lifts to arabesque the pelvis must tilt forward. But as this kind of analytical testing comes to an end when the arabesque reaches full height, Chen Wen’s torso stretches upwards and the breath that gives birth to this expressive and lyrical stretch continues through the neck as the head tilts slightly backwards. From there the movement swirls smoothly into the next phrase. It’s over quite quickly but it is just breathtaking in the way it generates so many thoughts about so many aspects of dance.

6 Breaths is an exquisite work even without any kind of technical analysis. Apart from the choreography and the performance of it, in terms of music and design it looks forward to a new and exciting collaborative aesthetic from Sydney Dance Company. But as I left the theatre I could not help but hope that Bonachela will be that rare kind of artistic director who will always be searching for an understanding of the innate qualities of movement, for whom physicality (not just physical tricks) is what makes dance dance—whatever kind of dance we might be talking about—and who wants his dancers to know these things too and be able to translate that knowledge into movement. Now that would make Sydney Dance a quite remarkable company. It would also make Bonachela one of the very few truly outstanding dance leaders.

Film clip from Stella Motion Pictures, with thanks.

© Michelle Potter, 12 April 2010