INDance, independent dance at Sydney Dance Company

Neilson Studio, Sydney Dance Company, August 19, 2022

INDance is a new Sydney Dance Company initiative, one in which it shares space and resources with independent dance artists. It’s good for everyone. The SDC audience is encouraged to dip toes into work that might otherwise not be on the radar and the country’s biggest contemporary dance company gives its backing and imprimatur to artists who don’t have the kind of bounty available to our high-profile performing arts organisations. 

INDance is a fairly modest venture at this point. Four choreographers were chosen by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela and an independent panel and each was allotted two performances in the Neilson Studio, the new black-box space in SDC’s spiffily upgraded Walsh Bay headquarters. The Neilson is reached by walking past a string of studios in which, on the evening I saw INDance, various public dance classes were in progress. It’s a very pleasing space.

Lilian Steiner in Siren Dance. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Given the brevity of each season, works by Lilian Steiner and Prue Lang have been and gone (they were performed on August 19 and 20). Natalie Allen and Rhiannon Newton are up next Friday and Saturday (August 26 and 27).

It should be noted that INDance isn’t an in-house choreographic development program like SDC’s well-established New Breed. INDance is for work that comes in ready to go: Steiner’s Siren Dance premiered at Melbourne’s Dancehouse in March this year, as did Lang’s CASTILLO. Newton’s Explicit Contents was part of the 2021 Sydney Festival.

In their program preface, SDC’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela and executive director Lou Oppenheim promise works that will “push the boundaries of dance”. It was unfortunate that both Siren Dance and CASTILLO made prominent use of the pointe shoe, a choice that  didn’t exactly shout boundary-pushing. In addition, while it’s true that the works aren’t presented as a double bill, they could be seen one after the other. It seemed odd decision-making to program them on the same night.

Steiner was the solo performer in her Siren Dance (three of these first INDance pieces were for one dancer; Newton’s is for two). Siren Dance is a work of two halves. In the first, Steiner was dressed in filmy diaphanous trousers and a prettily decorated floaty top. At first she criss-crossed the stage from back to front, stepping up on pointe and down again, always facing away from the audience. It was an enigmatic start. After a short time she added classically sinuous arms movements that sometimes ended with a flicking movement. The arm movements enlarged into something more elaborate and included fragments of 19th-century ballet images, such as a wrist pressed to the forehead, the back of a hand to the cheek, a beckoning with the index finger. 

Steiner repeatedly fell to the floor and reclined like an odalisque, seemingly graceful but with fast blinking that spoke of some discomfort with that role. The dance became more disordered until the first half ended with a scream. 

That’s one kind of siren. Steiner then removed the pointe shoes and changed, in sight of the audience, into brief, body-hugging black. Gauzy fabric played a part here too (Geoffrey Watson designed the costumes) as binding for the legs. This was siren as mermaid. Steiner crawled and slithered until the stage darkened and attention turned to projected text by Milan Kundera from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, sung ethereally by Aarti Jadu. The words spoke of falling, emptiness, vertigo and the earth becoming a void. How this related to Steiner’s dance was not particularly clear. To this viewer Siren Dance seemed emphatically to be a piece about how women can be objectified.  

Jana Castillo in CASTILLO. Photo by Anne Moffat

Lang’s CASTILLO, created in association with and in celebration of its performer, Jana Castillo, was equally elusive. It was in three sections, each preceded by a video roughly equal in length to the dance that followed. The opening video took a journey through the elaborate process of constructing a pointe shoe, mind-bogglingly complicated when you consider the short lifespan of the shoe. Then Castillo was seen in athletic gear and attacking form, giving traditional ballet steps loads of swagger and attitude. After a too-long video that lingered over close-ups of things found in nature, Castillo reappeared in looser garments. Wearing socks, she danced in a softer, more grounded style. 

On Friday night the third video fell victim to a technical snafu but I was able to see it later. It opposed images of fingers manipulating a substance called theraputty with a mobile mechanism that suggested a dislocated, headless body. When Castillo returned to the stage she was wearing sporty gear with sneakers and entertained greatly with hyper-active street dance, freely mixing precise mechanism and exhilarating elasticity.

The work’s name makes it clear that Lang wanted to show the breadth of Castillo’s talents, and on that level CASTILLO succeeded. Castillo is a charismatic stage presence. Otherwise, its demonstration of different experiences of touch wasn’t hugely fascinating. Certainly the explosion of energy at the end was gratefully received by the audience but other than that there wasn’t a great deal to take away. 

If you dig into Castillo’s past work and biography you can discover she has the neurological disorder dystonia, which results in involuntary muscle contractions, and that she also lives with autism, which she mentions on her website. (Castillo’s dystonia led to her inclusion in Force Majeure and Dance Integrated Australia’s wonderful 2016 work Off the Record, performed at Sydney’s Carriageworks. She was fascinating and enlightening.) Lang is clearly inspired by Castillo – how not? – but did CASTILLO offer “new perceptions of the dancing body”, to quote Lang’s program note? Not for this viewer. 

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