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.

ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, May 15.

This one is all about the dancers. It’s about how, to the audience, they look, feel and taste. How astonishing they are in form and function. How magnificent the human body can be and how powerful its effects on an observer.

On the dancers’ side of the fourth wall there’s something more private and alluring going on. Rafael Bonachela’s dancers have always been an integral part of the choreographer’s creative process but they have never looked more fundamentally embedded in the fabric of the piece than here, nor more mysterious.

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Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll in Rafael Bonachela’s ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Greig

ab [intra] (meaning from within) has not the slightest degree of narrative. It is moulded from moods and sensations, aided in no small way by the spare, elegant designs by Damien Cooper (lighting) and David Fleischer (production and costumes). The visual austerity is arrestingly achieved and gorgeous to look at. Fleischer’s vast white space is filled only with light and the dancers’ energy. Cooper sometimes lifts the wattage but his illumination is mostly restrained and filtered, primarily through the persistent haze that gives ab [intra] a dreamy quality.

The exacting simplicity is counterbalanced by Nick Wales’s sumptuous electronica-meets-cello score that intersperses new music by Wales with movements from works by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. While the cello is the dominant voice (one is reminded that it’s an instrument played with the body intimately wrapped around it), Wales also uses other strings, often heard played pizzicato, the piano and percussion in his richly furnished, emotionally involving aural soundscape.

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Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

It’s fascinating to see how the ferocious, out-there physicality of the dancers is used in the service of a work that teems with secrets. Everywhere you look there are unexpected moves, groupings, gestures and connections that don’t reveal themselves fully, even when certain images or phrases return.

At the beginning light is diffused through slats high above the stage and at all times if dancers come to the front of the stage they are in silhouette. The closer they get to the audience the less they can be seen and the more intriguing they appear.

One very brief interaction, seen early and later repeated, consists of a crouching person stroking the leg of one standing. The two are by no means the centre of attention and, because they are so far forward and to the side, there is little light on them. The meaning is impossible to decipher and yet the image lingers, as do many other small, pungent moments.

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Nelson Earl and Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

These swirl around more formal set pieces. Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll’s erotically entwined duo has a glowing, mystical quality. They scarcely leave the ground and are literally wrapped in one another. In the second central duo, Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni are  tender and ecstatic but not entirely knowable either. Their partnering is lush, intricate, often surprising and exceptionally beautiful.

Phenomenal Nelson Earl has an anguished, torso-twisting solo in which he seems to seek escape from himself, implacably observed by a stock-still line of eerily lit others; later, Ariella Casu similarly removes herself from the group to dance to her own rhythm but is euphoric.

And what is happening in all those trios? Three is a magic number – third time lucky – but three’s also a crowd. There is inherent drama in groups of uneven number, a situation Bonachela amplifies when two groups of five face off. And there are, as it happens, eight women and seven men in ab [intra].

It’s impossible to catch everything, no matter how hard you try, which only adds to the intensity of the experience. Everyone on stage has their own part to play, enacting intimate dramas or watching closely as they unfold. Over the years Sydney Dance Company has been home to dancers of remarkable presence and personality. Dufty has been there for a decade, Yap not much less. Both are glorious. At the other end of the scale, Earl joined in 2016, Carroll and Di Giovanni last year and Casu this year. It’s incredibly satisfying to see that even though there’s been quite a bit of change in the ranks recently, that bracing individuality remains. ab [intra] is proof positive.

Ends in Sydney May 26. Then Melbourne, May 30-June 2; Darwin, June 15; Perth, June 28-30; Canberra, August 30-September 1. Regional centres in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW, June 20-August 11.