Sydney Dance Company

CounterMove. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, February 29.

LUX Tenebris – Light in Darkness – is the name of Rafael Bonachela’s new work but it could well have been chosen to describe Sydney Dance Company’s new double bill as a whole. The company’s reprise of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, which opens the evening, puts the audience in a happy, buoyant mood. Lux Tenebris then takes a violent journey into the shadows with extreme physicality and bruising encounters.

Bonachela has taken the gloves off with Lux Tenebris. It’s not often his company looks this wild and tough. As the work starts the dancers prowl around like feral cats, get into lightning-fast tussles with others and then do a runner. It ends that way too, everyone fleeing from something.

The title may suggest a dichotomy but Lux Tenebris operates almost entirely in the dark recesses of the mind. Illumination in a technical sense (Benjamin Cisterne designed) either flickers on and off nervily or is a crepuscular veil or cone. Where there is some light it seems to indicate a place to inhabit briefly then retreat from. Bonachela appears to have wanted to suggest balance between the two forces but Lux Tenebris has a mind of its own and makes a different call. It’s an unequal contest.

Sydney Dance Company, Lux Tenebris (5). Dancers Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland

Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland in Lux Tenebris. Photo: Peter Greig

The atmosphere is edgy and mysterious, created in no small part by the commissioned electronic score from Nick Wales that evokes the vastness of the universe as it buzzes, hums, clanks and drones. Again darkness predominates, although there are melodic chords suggesting chinks of light that insinuate themselves from time to time into the dense fabric.

(Speaking of fabric, the only misstep in Lux Tenebris is the costuming from Aleisa Jelbart, who puts some surprisingly daggy shorts and shirts on stage.)

The 40-minute work feels challenging and unsettling, despite the underlying formality of the structure that follows Bonachela’s penchant for series of solos (Juliette Barton’s, in which she appears to be trying to escape from herself, is magnificent), duos and groups. The only sense of real connection is in two incredibly close, sexy, needy duos from Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland (both superb), and the lovely, momentary linking of the whole group in a line that soon disintegrates.

The dancers always look sharp but here sleekness gives way to ferociously strong and muscular attack. They need it for this hugely demanding work.

The evening starts with the return of Cacti, first danced by SDC in 2013. Ekman made it in 2010 as a riposte to pretentious critics – surely he had not yet experienced the clarity and wisdom of Australian reviewers – and the dance took off like wildfire. About 20 companies have it in their repertoire (Royal New Zealand Ballet has Cacti in its current season, Speed of Light, and National Ballet of Canada premieres it on March 9).

Sydney Dance Company Cacti (1). Photo by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company in Cacti. Photo: Peter Greig

What’s in it for the audience? Happily Ekman turned his dismay at being misunderstood into a laugh-aloud funny jeux d’esprit that fizzes with energy, particularly in the goofy opening in which a string quartet wanders around playing Schubert amidst music hall-style clowning and complicated manipulations of small platforms. Ekman is even-handed enough to poke fun at the choreographic process too and a delightful time is had by all.

The choreographer raises fewer questions than he may think but I’m not going to argue with a piece this attractive and well made.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on March 2.

CounterMove ends in Sydney on March 12. Canberra, May 19-21. Melbourne, May 25-June 4. Regional tour of NSW, Queensland Northern Territory and Western Australia June 17-August 13.


On the CounterMove opening night it was announced that Sydney Dance Company would take 2014’s Interplay on tour to Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Chile and Argentina in April and May. In Europe the company is part of Dance Festival Steps, a multi-city biennial showcase for contemporary dance that this year also includes work from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Wayne McGregor, Aakash Odedra with Rising, seen last year in Perth and Brisbane, and Huang Yi, whose Huang Yi and Kuka will be seen in Sydney in mid-March before its appearances at Dance Festival Steps. Sometimes the dance world can seem a rather small place.

Interplay is a terrific triple bill, the memory of which sent me back to my review of March 2014. Who knows? You may want to take a trip to one of the seven venues at which SDC is appearing. Well, you could go to one of six. The performance at Neuchâtel on April 23 is listed as sold out (the website is

The Australian, March 19, 2014

WHAT a rich, diverse evening. Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay offers three works, any two of which would have given a stimulating experience, but who’s complaining? Each makes a strong appeal to a different human need and shows the SDC dancers in shape-shifting, magisterial form.

Rafael Bonachela takes on Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D Minor for an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, has heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models well, that gives the libido a workout.

SDC Interplay Raw Models. Production photo by Wendell Teodoro 1

Sydney Dance Company in Raw Models, part of Interplay. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Violinist Veronique Serret plays for Bonachela’s piece, called 2 in D Minor, planting her feet firmly on the stage and engaging fiercely with the dancers. Also on the program is new music from Stefan Gregory (invigorating, rhythmic tunes for L’Chaim!) and Nick Wales (intriguing electronic miniatures that act as contemporary interludes for in 2 in D Minor, based on Serret’s playing). This is a big, big show.

Bonachela’s piece doesn’t always rise to the complexities and nuances of Bach but has many luscious moments, particularly in sections involving Charmene Yap, David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper. On Monday night Yap embodied the music with alert, sinuous grace, frequently making eye contact with Serret, and David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper’s closely intertwined duo in the first movement also gave the sense of bodies merging with the music and emerging from it. There was a fine contrast in the second movement, Corrente, when Fiona Jopp’s lively solo was more external: a performance bubbling on top of the music.

As the piece progressed some of the dance material and structures lost their juice when familiarity set in. The solo interludes between movements were the surprise element, with white-clad figures offering present-day, somewhat anguished homage to Bach. These interpolated pieces were danced on a square of light on the stage, mirroring the skylight-like light that hovered above the Bach movements. (Benjamin Cisterne created the set and lighting.) I couldn’t help but think these little dances referred to the noble struggle involved in living up to the genius of Bach.

When Raw Models premiered in 2011 I was struck by the various meanings of the word model it evoked: fashion, mechanical device, computer modelling. This time the piece felt a little different. Overall there isn’t quite the level of chic and haughty sheen the original cast brought to it but it is still very sexy. The ripples, poses and elongations of seven dancers dressed in skin-tight black bring to mind the enacting of a creation story or perhaps, given the gloom and frequent blackouts, rebirth from a catastrophe.

Whatever it is, it’s happening in a galaxy far, far away. These superb physical specimens may look human but could well be aliens from the planet Glamour Major. The opening night crowd went wild, particularly (and rightly) for Yap’s knockout duo with Andrew Crawford, a man with the wingspan and majesty of a golden eagle, both of which he puts to excellent use in Raw Models (Crawford is unfortunately no longer with SDC).

Where Raw Models demonstrates the vast gulf between elite performers and their audience, L’Chaim! seeks connection. Folk dancing is the choreographic impulse and the illustration of community. A disembodied voice (that of Zoe Coombs Marr, text is by David Woods) asked company members questions – some banal, some impertinent, some useful – about themselves and what they felt about dancing. The idea is an extension of a long-running interest Obarzanek has in why people dance and what dance means, and there is a work of greater depth there for the taking. L’Chaim! is already an endearing addition to the inquiry.

Wearing a motley array of ordinary clothes, the full SDC company beautifully illustrated how highly trained bodies can move in ways denied the rest of us. Then, as they almost imperceptibly let go of their technique, they movingly showed how a civilian may be absorbed into the dance.

Footnote: for the European performances Serret will once again be the violin soloist for 2 in D Minor and Obarzanek will take on the role of the interrupting actor in L’Chaim!

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company

Perth International Arts Festival, February 11.

Mostly when we see Kathak dance it is in the exhilarating contemporary form created by Akram Khan. Khan, who is of Bangladeshi heritage but born in the UK, has made a singular body of work – often with other high-profile artists – from the fusion of the ancient classical dance of his forebears and the Western dance he encountered as a teenager. Next-generation Kathak exponent Aakash Odedra was also born in the UK and is also a hybrid man as anyone who saw his solo show Rising in Perth or Brisbane last year can attest – his program included works by Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkoui.

Khan’s company tours indefatigably and most of his key works have been widely seen: Ma, Vertical Road, Sacred Monsters (in which he danced with Sylvie Guillem), in-i (with Juliette Binoche), iTMOi, Zero Degrees and Gnosis among them. Desh was a highlight of the 2014 Brisbane Festival; Zero Degrees, in which Khan collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, remains one of my most highly prized dance-theatre experiences.

Khan’s dazzling skills have taught audiences around the world much about Kathak’s vivid beauties of whirlwind speed, tight spins, rhythmic complexity and intricate patterns made by stamping feet and agile hands. It’s not museum dance, though. He honours Kathak’s emphasis on storytelling, but presents his own, often deeply personal, stories.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company Within Pic Toni Wilkinson

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Within. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Nor is Aditi Mangaldas’s form of Kathak frozen in time, but with the slightly older star we see something different and fascinating; a presentation of Kathak that is responsive to the world as it is now but more intrinsically attached to its roots. One is tinglingly aware of the ties between form, content and culture, even if able to apprehend the riches only glancingly (we really do not see enough of the traditional classical dances of our near neighbours). Mangaldas, who is greatly admired by Khan, was born in India and her company appears there regularly as well as on international tours. She describes her works specifically, listing them separately: classical Kathak, contemporary Kathak, and a union of both. In the last category Mangaldas places Within, the work chosen by Wendy Martin to lead off the bounteous dance program in her first Perth International Arts Festival.

Mangaldas’s is a more pure form of Kathak than Khan’s, if you like, even though one imagines purists in her homeland might take issue with her introduction of highly political present-day concerns, filtered through time-honoured mythologies. Within starts in darkness and moves into the light in two linked but distinctively different works, the combination of which is greatly moving. The first, Knotted, is a howl of sorrow and rage; the second, Unwrapped, is devotional and ecstatic.

Knotted is impelled by the appalling fate of the young Indian woman so viciously raped in 2012 that she died of her injuries. There is no literal reference to it but the story of Nirbhaya (“Fearless”), as she was known to protect her identity, cannot fail to be uppermost in the mind. Nor can the crushing oppression of many Indian women, particularly the impoverished. Terror and anguish roil through Knotted, particularly in two urgent solos danced by Mangaldas. In the first she is the shivering embodiment of fear; in the second she is discovered spread close to the ground in a confining circle, almost non-human in her abjection. But defiance increasingly takes over and she comes to own and define the space, a burning physical force and a charismatic presence.

Knotted starts with men and women running across a dimly lit stage, their haste speaking of dread. Some drop to the ground for a moment to circle swiftly on their knees as if in supplication and are then off again. Dancers hit their hands together and heads recoil as if struck, or lean perilously backwards and swirl their backs. Sidelights illuminate fallen bodies lying on top of one another, a jumble of humanity where one person is indistinguishable from the next. In this 40-minute, episodic piece the imagery can at times seem somewhat generalised or obvious but Mangaldas’s passion, her eyes burning into the auditorium like searchlights, is thrilling.

In the second half Mangaldas and her lovely company bring balm in the form of Unwrapped’s gorgeous, uplifting classicism. The dancers are accompanied by onstage musicians and the tinkling of the bells wrapped around their ankles; the fitted trousers and dramatically flowing tunics in muted earthy colours seen in Knotted give way to delicately floating gold garments. In an atmosphere of calm and gentle introspection, dancers’ heads are wound about with cloth and then unveiled in a tranquil image of self-awareness and understanding. The finesse and individuality of Mangaldas’s dancers are displayed in formal groupings but the undeniable highlight is a lighting-fast, lustrous solo for the choreographer, who darts and flutters like a joyous hummingbird.

As with other events in the first days of the festival (Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, reviewed below; Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe’s Every Brilliant Thing) there was a palpable connection between artists and audience. The feeling of something being generously shared, not just seen, was paramount and even in the most challenging of subjects there was the strongest affirmation of life.