New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 6

The mysteries of dance and dancemaking are great. What drives the need to watch this person closely and not that one? Why does a work speak to something deep within while another is superficially entertaining? How is it that one is engaged intellectually and emotionally with one piece of dance while finding another pleasing enough in the moment but forgotten shortly after?

It is, of course, the job of the critic to analyse these matters and build an argument. It’s important, too, to convey a sense of the occasion so the reader may come away thinking they’d rather like the piece the writer did not rate highly, or would rather remove their own appendix than endure the work so lavishly praised.

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Holly Doyle (foreground) in Creeper by Lauren Langlois. Photo: Pedro Greig

A program such as Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed (or Queensland Ballet’s Synergy, or The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque) bring these thoughts into even greater focus than usual. This is where new work is presented, sometimes by experienced choreographers and often by relative or total neophytes. It’s a given that all pieces are danced spectacularly well by company members. The works may not have much – or anything – in the way of sets but they will be professionally lit and costumed. Nothing will last more than about 25 minutes and some much less. There are always four or sometimes five works on the program, often coming from incredibly different directions. Variety is a given and because the viewer is unlikely to be deeply familiar with any choreographer’s work the element of surprise can be great. You’re not necessarily going to like everything but almost certain to come away satisfied that you got your money’s worth. Which, because New Breed tickets were $35, you most certainly did.

Repertoire building is not the primary goal of these programs – their focus is on giving choreographers an opportunity to develop their craft – but bringing more experienced independent choreographers to a wider audience can be beneficial to both sides. New Breed is where SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela found Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeestand Melanie Lane’s WOOF, which he then put into mainstage seasons. On the development front, Bodytorque is where TAB nurtured Alice Topp, now a resident choreographer, and before her Tim Harbour, ditto. Rising star Jack Lister got his start at QB in its studio presentations, he recently choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s main program which was seen in Birmingham and at Sadlers Wells, and is now transferring to Brisbane’s Australian Dance Collective (formerly Expressions Dance Company) where he will be both dancer and choreographer from next year.

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Chloe Leong in In Walked Bud by Davide Di Giovanni. Photo: Pedro Greig

So what of this year’s New Breed? There are four works, two by SDC company members Davide Di Giovanni and Ariella Casu and the others by Lauren Langlois and Josh Mu, both of whom are old hands in the independent contemporary dance scene.

Di Giovanni’s In Walked Bud, a dance for two women and a man to the music of Thelonius Monk, looked sophisticated and fun. Guy Hastie dressed Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong in to-die-for black unitards with cheeky pink fringing on one leg, Alexander Berlage lit the stage with expanding ovals of light, unlit it with a handful of blackouts and threw shadows with backlighting. Doyle, Leong and Luke Hayward were Hollywood glamorous and were almost enough compensation for a lumpy structure that had audiences at sea about whether the piece had ended or was continuing.

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Sydney Dance Company in Ariella Casu’s Arise for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Casu’s Arise was clearly heartfelt but its territory is well-worn. A group of nine dancers was at first aggressive, frantic, robotic and impassive in tight shiny hoodies (Aleisa Jelbart designed, as she did three of the four New Breed works). When they shed this dark upper garment it was if they were reborn into a state of innocence and unworldliness.

Josh Mu’s Zero, which ended the program, was danced to the energising beat of Huey Benjamin’s electronic score. While it perhaps didn’t fully convey Mu’s theme of humanity teetering on the edge of existence, the large group of 11 dancers made the piece zing from go to whoa and hyperactive Chloe Young, intriguingly hiding much of the time behind a long veil of hair, threw herself into the moment and consumed space and energy as if there were no tomorrow. Emily Seymour’s superbly controlled rotations while lying on the floor were less easy to fit into the picture but were quite magical.

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Sydney Dance Company in Josh Mu’s Zero. Photo: Pedro Greig

Which leaves Creeper, by Lauren Langlois. At 25 minutes her piece for four women was the longest (by a few minutes) of the evening’s works. It was also the only one that to me felt fully formed and realised. Only in Creeper did I feel any curiosity about who these people were and what they felt.

The immediate impression was of a strange, unsettling place and restless, unsettled people. Berlage’s lighting (he worked on all four pieces) at first gave the stage a light green tinge and later a purply wash; eerie or sickly, depending on your interpretation. Jason Wright’s sound design was equally elusive and disorienting. The women – Jesse Scales, Ariella Casu, Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong, all memorable – stood apart from one another although the focus was on Scales, moving slowly as the others moved even more slowly, each apparently with her own thoughts. Staggering steps brought them together, stuttering, ungainly, awkward, even ugly, but affecting. This is what the internal conflict and anguish we usually hide beneath a polite exterior look like.

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Jesse Scales (centre) with Ariella Casu (and Chloe Leong in Creeper. Photo: Pedro Greig

The woman needed one another even as they also took their own paths, looking for – who knows what? It could be consolation in difficult times, the strength of the group, or the basic drive to survive even though the world is a blasted desert. In some ways Creeper could be a companion piece to Antony Hamilton’s unforgettable Keep Everything (2014), in which Langlois performed, brilliantly. There’s the same fractured, extreme physicality and interest in how technology challenges the whole of humanity and our personal interactions with others. That said, Creeper is very much its own work, with much greater emphasis on the possibility of emotional engagement. I could see it again and again, for the way the women huddled together for comfort; that repeated gesture of raising a foot behind them and brushing it with a hand; the phenomenal Scales’s intense upwards gaze that searched the universe; and so much more.

Sydney Dance Company, New Breed 2018

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 29.

Holly Doyle’s sweet, sad, funny, goofy, utterly captivating Out, Damned Spot! is exactly why Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed exists and why it works. Doyle doesn’t have an extensive choreographic resumé but did have a big hit in this year’s annual season of short new works. She has an original voice worth nurturing.

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Sydney Dance Company in Holly Doyle’s Out, Damned Spot!. Photo: Pedro Greig

New Breed falls happily between the glare of the mainstage, with all the attendant presumptions and expectations, and the studio settings where dancers are often seen trying their hand at choreography. New Breed participants are given top-quality, although carefully restricted, resources and have the great advantage of being seen at Carriageworks, a place whose raison d’être is the experimental and the new.

From its inception in 2014, New Breed has given opportunities to outside choreographers as well as SDC dancers and those independent dancemakers are almost always far more experienced than the company members. That decision by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela has paid off. The bar is set high and it’s gratifying to see that, mostly, the SDC dancers make a very good showing indeed.

It’s no surprise, though, that the two New Breed works that have made the jump to one of SDC’s mainstage programs – Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest and Melanie Lane’s WOOF – are by independent artists. Wildebeest was in the first New Breed program in 2014 and was part of 2016’s main SDC season; WOOF, from last year’s New Breed, is on the big stage in 2019  and will be seen alongside new pieces from Bonachela and – hooray! – Nankivell.

It’s worth noting, too, that Larissa McGowan’s wildly enjoyable Fanatic, staged during SDC’s 2013 season, came out of a showcase for new work that Bonachela included in his 2012 Spring Dance festival at the Sydney Opera House.

In short, female contemporary choreographers rock. One could note that they are far from achieving parity with men if you look at Bonachela’s mainstage programming over his decade at the SDC helm, but he hasn’t pretended there isn’t a problem and he’s working on it. The showcase in which McGowan took part was an all-female affair, as is this year’s New Breed. People have to be seen to be noticed.

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Telopea, choreographed by Janessa Dufty. Photo: Pedro Greig

And so to New Breed 2018. Doyle and Janessa Dufty came from SDC’s dancer ranks and were joined by independent choreographers Prue Lang and Katina Olsen. All the pieces were relatively modest in scale, using five or six dancers and nothing in the way of a set, but each had a strong, clearly expressed, individual style.

Doyle’s Out, Damned Spot! began with five people shambling on to the stage, mumbling. They were wearing hazmat suits, or something vaguely resembling them. For these women and men the thin, transparent material seemed to be more psychological crutch than anything remotely useful against dangerous substances. At the same time there was a gallant, sporty vibe going on as the group split and regroup, sometimes breaking into exaggerated dance or gymnastic moves. Whatever they were doing, it was them against the world, trying to save themselves from pollution of all kinds – external and internal.

Out, Damned Spot! was surprisingly moving and, even better, was a work that never signalled what it was going to do next.

Dufty and Olsen – she was formerly with Bangarra Dance Theatre – presented heartfelt works that drew on nature for spiritual nourishment and inspiration in very different ways. The shapes in Dufty’s Telopea, made for a woman and four men, echoed that of the flower and fecundity and regeneration were at the heart of Ariella Casu’s striking central performance. Singing live, the score’s composer, Tobias Merz, added to the warm glow of piece that was attractive but a little too conventional in form to linger long in the memory.

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Mother’s Cry, choreographed by Katina Olsen. Photo: Pedro Greig

Olsen’s Mother’s Cry was a lament for a lost planet but also consoling in its vision of female energy, wisdom and unity. There was the possibility of a different future when the six women of the cast gathered closely together, pulsating with life. The deliberately slow start to Mother’s Cry was wonderful. Olsen refused to rush, and in this one could see elements of her Bangarra background and her Indigenous heritage. Time is given its due as the fourth dimension; stillness is pregnant with anticipation; there is beauty and meaning in watching and waiting. In movement the women were both of this world and beyond it – sensuously physical but mysterious.

Prue Lang also looked ahead in time and space with the tautly constructed and coolly cerebral Towards Innumerable Futures. The well-travelled Lang is a long, long way from being a neophyte and her experience was abundantly demonstrated in the assurance and elegance of her construction.

Three women and two men were dressed almost identically from top to toe. They sported severely bobbed hair, form-fitting pants, slightly blousy tops and sneakers, and could possibly have served at some point on the Starship Enterprise in an anonymous capacity.  Lang constantly redefined the space and the dancers moving robotically, mathematically and enigmatically within it. They managed passing moments of connection but you’d place your money on the machines winning.

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Prue Lang’s Towards Innumerable Futures. Photo: Pedro Greig

Alexander Berlage was the expert lighting designer for all four pieces; Aleisa Jelbart created the brilliant costumes that so eloquently illuminated each choreographer’s vision. The music, all of it newly commissioned, was weighted towards atmospheric, drone-heavy electronic soundscapes. Ah well. It’s a change from the days when baroque faves or the works of Arvo Pärt were ubiquitous in contemporary dance.

As always the dancers were SDC company members, doing each choreographer great honour. It was particularly touching to see Doyle in Lang’s piece and the radiant Dufty in Olsen’s. A terrific night.

Ends December 8.

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.