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

Sydney Dance Company turns 50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2019

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

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

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. Sydney Dance Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 6 April 2019

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

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

Dance diary. March 2019

  • Jerome Robbins Dance Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from Weerewa. Portrait of a Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

  • Bonchela/Nankivell/Lane

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2019

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2018

  • Belong. QL2’s Chaos Project for 2018

Every year Canberra’s young dancers audition for the Chaos Project staged by QL2. The umbrella name suggests the chaotic situation with which the project begins—in 2018 there were 45 young dancers, boys and girls, aged from eight upwards. But of course by the time the show hits the stage the chaos is gone and, despite the age and experience of the dancers, we the audience are always treated to a wonderful evening of youth dance. The 2018 project, called Belong, had sections choreographed by Olivia Fyfe, Jodie Farrugia and Luke Fryer with Ruth Osborne adding (with her usual flair) an opening and closing section. The topic for exploration—‘belonging’—generated some interesting choreographic responses including the addiction (and disconnection from others) to smart phones and social media; supporting others in a variety of ways; bullying; and other similar matters affecting young people. Dance for the times!

  • Liz Lea and RED

Liz Lea will present her truly exceptional work RED in Liverpool, England, in November as part of the LEAP Festival. It will have a one-off performance on 7 November at 6pm at the Warehouse Studio Theatre, Hope University Creative Campus. RED premiered in Canberra earlier this year. Follow this link for my review of the premiere performance.

Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018

Liz Lea in a study for RED, 2018

  • Sydney Dance Company in 2019

Sydney Dance Company has announced its season program for 2019, which will celebrate what is the company’s 50th anniversary. Season choreography will be by Rafael Bonachela, Gabrielle Nankivell, Melanie Lane and Gideon Obarzanek. Full details at this link.

While each of the three programs that will take place over 2019 promises something unusual, it will definitely be fascinating to see what Obarzanek does with a work called Us 50 in which, in the spirit of the anniversary, he will use 50 dancers drawn from former and current company dancers, along with members of the community.

Former and current dancers from Sydney Dance Company: (left to right) Kip Gamblin, Linda Ridgeway, Rafael Bonachela, Sheree Zellner (da Costa), Lea Francis and Bradley Chatfield. Photo: Pedro Greig

  • Oral history: Ariette Taylor

My most recent oral history interview for the National Library was with Ariette Taylor, whose contribution to the work of Australian Dance Theatre during the directorship of Jonathan Taylor has probably not been fully explored to date. In addition to a discussion of her work in Adelaide, the interview includes Taylor’s background as a dancer in Holland and with Ballet Rambert, and her work as a theatre director after the Taylor family moved from Adelaide to Melbourne.

  • Remi Wortmeyer

As part of my research for the interview with Ariette Taylor I was searching for information about Mascha ter Weeme, who directed Ballet der Lage Landen, which Taylor joined in Amsterdam in 1957. I accidentally came across some news about Remi Wortmeyer, former dancer with the Australian Ballet and now principal with the Dutch National Ballet. This is old news (from 2016) but I had not come across it before so am posting it here in case any of my readers have also not heard it.

Wortmeyer was, in 2016, the recipient of the beautifully named Mr Expressivity Award at the international ballet festival, Dance Open, in St Petersburg. The trophy, I understand, replicates the lower leg of Anna Pavlova!

Remi Wortmeyer . Mr Expressivity, 2018
Remi Wortmeyer trophy

Wortmeyer’s website is at this link and the images above are from this site.

  • Jacob’s Pillow (again)

The latest post from Jacob’s Pillow is a series of video clips with the links between the clips centring on black costuming. There is a clip of David Hallberg dancing Nacho Duato’s solo Kaburias, which makes me think back to that wonderful piece, Por vos muero, which was at one stage in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet but not seen for a number of years now. For my New Zealand readers there is a short clip of an early piece by Black Grace, Minoi, seen at the Pillow in 2004. Then there is a mesmerising clip from Un ballo, a work choreographed by Françoise Adret,with perhaps a nod to Duato, for Lyon Opera Ballet. Lots more. Check out the Pillow’s dance interactive site .

  • Meryl Tankard’s Two Feet

I have long regretted that Meryl Tankard’s solo show Two Feet has never been revived. Well news just in from the Adelaide Festival 2019 is that Tankard is reviving the work for next year’s festival. It will feature the remarkable Natalia Osipova. I imagine tickets will fly out the door!

  • Press for October 2018

‘Bravissimo bringing ballet gala to town.’ Preview of World Superstars of Ballet Gala, Bravissimo Productions. The Canberra Times, 1 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

‘Uneven but often impressive show.’ Review of Happiness is …, Canberra Dance Theatre. The Canberra Times, 16 October 2018, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2018

Featured image: Promotional image for QL2’s Belong, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Promotional image for QL2's Belong, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

 

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Forever & Ever', 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Forever & Ever. Sydney Dance Company

17 October 2018. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney

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.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company with the Australian String Quartet in 'Frame of Mind'. Photo: Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company with the Australian String Quartet in Frame of Mind, 2018 Photo: © Pedro Greig

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!

Jesse Scales and artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Forever & Ever'. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Jesse Scales and artists of Sydney Dance Company in Forever & Ever, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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).

Scene from 'Forever & Ever', Sydney Dance Company 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from Forever & Ever, Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Michelle Potter, 19 October 2018

Featured image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Forever & Ever, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Forever & Ever', 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

From 1993 …

I was moved reading Jennifer Shennan’s recent review from Auckland’s Tempo Festival, in which she discussed Douglas Wright’s latest work, M_Nod, and in which she also referred to Wright’s current health issues. My mind went racing back to 1993—it was the year that Wright’s Gloria was first performed in Sydney as part of a Sydney Dance Company season. Those were the days before things were available online and I hunted out the review I wrote of it for Dance Australia. I clearly remember Gloria (who could forget it?), and The Protecting Veil, the work by Graeme Murphy, with which Gloria shared the stage. I am posting the 1993 review below. Reading it now, 25 years and many, many reviews later, there are sections I would probably phrase differently now, but I have resisted changing anything. And I should add that, even though I am focusing my thoughts on Gloria on this occasion, I am in no way wanting to gloss over Murphy’s work, which was equally as thrilling and moving as Wright’s.

The review was originally published in Dance Australia in the issue of February/March 1994.

Truly thrilling
GLORIA, THE PROTECTING VEIL
Sydney Dance Company
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
November 1993

Douglas Wright’s 1990 piece Gloria and Graeme Murphy’s new The Protecting Veil opened what turned out to be a thrilling season of dance. Gloria, performed to Vivaldi’s choral piece of the same name, is Wright’s tribute to a friend who died at twenty. It is, on the one hand, a joyous piece that celebrates life with an outpouring of dance that is full of vigour and vitality.

Part of the joyous feeling that emerges in Gloria stems from the wit of its choreography and from its tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards the classical vocabulary. Here Wright’s work acknowledges a debt to Paul Taylor with whom Wright performed extensively during the 1980s. There is something very Tayloresque about those moments when a split jete, performed flat out, is followed by a jump that looks as though it will be another of the same but instead turns into a delicious movement in which the dancer appears to be running very fast in mid-air. Or in those other moments when a relatively well known step is followed unexpectedly by a hand- or head-stand.

But in addition to its joyous appearance, Gloria also grieves for a particular life cut off in its prime. This dual theme of joy and sorrow is addressed in movement sequences such as the juxtaposition, early in the piece, of a funereal kind of procession of dancers walking in a square formation with another group dancing in circles in and out of and around the sombre square.

A kind of fragmentation also surfaces in the way that the dance connects, or doesn’t connect with the music. Often a particular choreographic sequence will continue during a pause between sections in the music. Often, too, the audience is faced with a darkened stage, devoid of bodies but filled with music.

In the end, however, Gloria is in praise of life. Its constant use of the circle, both as a choreographic theme and in its lighting design by John Rayment, stresses continuity and its final image of rebirth ensures that we come away with a message that is life-affirming.

The Protecting Veil, like Gloria, takes its name from the music that accompanies it, in this case John Taverner’s composition for solo cello and strings inspired by ancient Byzantine church music. Murphy has produced a strong work that is theatrical without being excessively so, and that consolidates his position as a choreographer whose originality constantly astonishes the viewer.

In a structure that recalls last year’s Synergy with Synergy, with its constructions and transitions, The Protecting Veil consists of eight movements separated by what are called in the program “crossings”. In the eight movements, duets, trios and quartets alternate with dances for the whole company. A quartet for Lea Francis, Alfred Taahi, Wakako Asano, and Xue-Jun Wang is memorable for the way in which it combines four individualistic bodies and four equally individualistic ways of moving.

The power of the piece, however, is in the crossings. Here Murphy builds up a tension that aligns itself with the mesmeric aspects of Taverner’s score. All the crossings feature Janet Vernon. They are initially brief, tantalising appearances. But they gradually build in length and complexity, culminating in a duet in which Vernon is, in the beginning, partnered by Carl Plaisted through the veil of a scrim cloth. The shrouded movement that results is intrinsically interesting for its novelty, but it also makes the second section of the duet, performed without the protection of the veil, seem crystalline.

The Protecting Veil also relies for its impact on Murphy’s design concept. In addition to the use of scrims to reveal and conceal, the forest of small lights attached to long wires that are alternately lowered and raised during the piece, and the use of a slit backcloth through which bodies, and seemingly dismembered parts of them, appear and disappear are all part of a play with perception that has frequently characterised Murphy’s work. In The Protecting Veil this approach helps produce a piece that exudes the tension and suspense of a religious ritual.

Sydney Dance is looking great. And that’s not surprising considering the challenges presented to the company by Murphy himself and the choreographers he supports.

Michelle Potter, 12 October 2018

Featured image: The portrait of Douglas Wright contained in the header to this post is by John Savage.

ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company

1 September 2018, Canberra Theatre

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.

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in 'ab [intra]', Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: Pedro Greig

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig]

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.

Dancers of sydney Dance Company in 'ab [intra]', 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra], 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Michelle Potter, 3 September 2018

Featured image: Nelson Earl in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

 

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet … second viewing

14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).

Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand,  ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.

I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening  filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.

Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.

Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2018

Featured image: Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.

Scene from 'Ocho'. Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

ORB. Sydney Dance Company

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 in 'Full Moon'. Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Latisha Sparks in Full Moon, Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Jesse Scales in Full Moon, Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Latisha Sparks and Bernhard Knauer in 'Full Moon', Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Latisha Sparks and Bernhard Knauer in Full Moon, Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Scene from 'Ocho', Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from Ocho, Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

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.

Michelle Potter 31 May, 2017

Featured image: Scene from Ocho. Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from 'Ocho'. Sydney Dance Company, 2017. Photo: © Pedro Greig

 

 

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

New Breed (2016). Sydney Dance Company

9 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The most ‘left-of-centre’ work on this year’s New Breed program was the final offering, Shian Law’s Epic Theatre. His premise, which he enunciated at the end of his work, was that theatre is basically one set of people looking at another set of people. And so he played with who was audience and who was performer, beginning as we entered the performing space for the start of his work. There was, however, a kind of ‘taster’ during the interval when we watched two dancers engaging in a powerful physical encounter outside the theatre space. (Carriageworks doesn’t really have a lobby as such).

Once inside, we were confronted by a line of people, a mix of dancers and audience, with arms linked tightly. The way to our seats was effectively blocked. Gradually we were given an opportunity to move to our seats and once everyone was in, there was some crazy dancing, especially from the tall and physically expressive Sam Young-Wright who, at one stage, stripped down to his underpants. There was also a lot of walking up, down, and around the performing space by dancers and some audiences members. But in the end, as entertaining as it all was, and that entertaining aspect extended to an electronic score played live by composer Marco Cher-Gibard, the idea was more interesting than the performance.

Coming in a close second in the left-of-centre stakes was Richard Cilli’s Hinterland. It began with a section in which a group of dancers ‘commented’ on the dancing of their colleagues with noises of various kinds—grunts, whoops and a range of silly sounds. Then followed a section when the dancers collapsed in a writhing heap while the triumphant strains of Liszt’s Chapelle de Guillaume Tell filled the air. The work finished with a section in which there was an ongoing discussion of which dancer was most like which character in the movie Titanic. (Bernhard Knauer was the iceberg!)

According to Cilli, Hinterland ‘explores the tension between outward appearances and the vast inner landscape.’ A little like Epic Theatre, the idea was a rather more interesting than the outcome. Having said that, some parts Hinterland were quite funny and Daniel Roberts was particularly expert at making his silly noises sound perfectly suited to the movements of his colleagues

I really enjoyed the opening work, Jesse Scales’ What you see, even though it might be regarded as the most conventional of the evening’s offerings—if indeed anything emerging from Sydney Dance can be thought of as conventional. Made for just three dancers, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Nelson Earl and Latsiha Sparks, and performed to music by Max Richter, it consisted basically of three solos, followed by a group section in which the silent screams of each of the dancers was a gripping element. Each solo focused on a different kind of gloom or torment, but the dancing was so good that the darkness of mood did not overpower the work. The whole was carefully composed with each solo following on smoothly from the other, and with the performers often moving down the diagonal with the kind of extreme movement that characterises much of Sydney Dance Company’s work. All three dancers performed exceptionally well and their facial expressions were a powerful means of highlighting the moods of What you see.

Scene from 'What you see'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from What you see, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

For me the work of the night, however, was Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Of Dust, which explored connections between the stars, and other cosmic forces, and man’s journey from birth to death. It was a fast moving piece danced to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley. It began with a tightly knit group of dancers, five in all (Juliette Barton, Richard Cilli, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, and Charmene Yap), pulling each other and the group into a series of constantly changing shapes. There was tension there, but also a feeling of unity. What followed teetered between order and disorder, connections and disconnections with some wonderful dancing from Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap in particular. Partnering was exceptional and the work moved swiftly and lyrically from beginning to end.

Unlike the situation with What you see, perhaps it would have been difficult to make the connection between Ogle’s work and her intentions without program notes, but Of Dust was a beautiful work to watch. It is the first piece I have seen from Ogle, who is based in Western Australia. I look forward to seeing more.

Scene from 'Of Dust'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from Of Dust, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Lighting for each of the four works was by Benjamin Cisterne and was most effective in Of Dust where Cisterne was able to use downlights, circles of light, changing colours, and other devices to add to the feeling that we were looking beyond the earth.

Michelle Potter, 14 December 2016

Featured image: Scene from Epic Theatre, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

On another note, it is frustrating that Sydney Dance Company no longer provides names  of dancers in the captions attached to its media images. The dancers of Sydney Dance Company are all exceptional performers and deserve to be identified. I can guess but I’d rather be sure by having the company do the work of identification.