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.

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, March 27

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane ushers in Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary celebrations with three works that foreground the dancers. There are appealing but unpretentious costumes and no sets. There are bodies in motion, music and lights, although perhaps a few more blackouts than desirable on one night.

The relative simplicity could be seen as offering a too-limited palette or a strong organising principle, depending on taste. What isn’t open to question is what makes the biggest splash on the program.

As it did when first seen in 2017’s New Breed season, Melanie Lane’s WOOF sweeps all before it. Who knows what the title means? Who cares? Now a touch longer, WOOF ends well before you want it to, testament to its appeal. It gets the job done in 26 minutes and they whizz by as if half that.

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Sydney Dance Company in Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Photo: Pedro Greig

WOOF is futuristic in tone and has some kinship with Anne Washburn’s play Mr Burns, which uses The Simpsons as a uniting force in a post-apocalyptic world. Lane’s touchstones are Renaissance art, classical ballet and contemporary clubbing, mashed together as 12 women and men group, splinter and regroup to a score by Clark’s score that starts with cello and inexorably goes digital.

Even at its most eccentric – that would be the hip-swivelling prancing on demi-pointe – WOOF has glamour to burn. No one in the cast exemplified that more on opening night than Chloe Young, haughtily swishing her long, blonde ponytail.

Lane’s vision doesn’t encourage individuality and emotional connection but it is impossible to remain unmoved by her final, transcendent image. Verity Hampson designed the marvellous lighting and Aleisa Jelbart the costumes that slowly take on humanising messiness as blacking on the dancers’ arms and hands transfers itself to their bodies.

Opening the triple bill is Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether, a trip through space set to Luke Smiles’s fabulously clanking, whooshing, beeping score. A woman dressed in red (Harriet Oxley designed the costumes) is the enigmatic central figure in a piece that evokes the vastness of the universe and our need to engage with it.

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether. Photo: Pedro Greig

As with WOOF but with entirely different atmospherics and dynamics, Neon Aether shows groups of people gathering and scattering. Some watch others from the shadows; sometimes all are together as a vulnerable group of individuals; at one point all join hands and circle – an image that never fails to summon thoughts of connection and safety. There is overall, however, a strong sense of vulnerability. Ariella Casu seared herself into the memory as the woman in red, alone at the end in hazy light, buffeted by cosmic forces.

Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco – for five dancers, naturally – is a beautifully detailed response to Alberto Ginastera’s second string quartet. Bianca Spender’s airy, fluid costumes and Damien Cooper’s lighting (he also lit Neon Aether) soften the sophisticated astringency of the music.

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Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

While WOOF and Neon Aether encourage some degree of narrative speculation, Cinco is entirely abstract in nature, foregrounding the shapes dancers make, their relation to one another in the space and light and the ways in which movement and music interact. There’s a spectacular solo that, on opening night, displayed Charmene Yap’s creamy plasticity and fierce extensions. But all five – the others on opening night were Davide Di Giovanni, Holly Doyle, Riley Fitzgerald and Chloe Leong – were immaculate.

Nearly half the 19-member company is new this year, not that it shows. The look and feel are indisputably Bonachela’s SDC. He knows how to pick them.

Ends April 13. Canberra, May 2-4; Melbourne, May 8-11; tour to centres in Victoria, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania, May 16-August 17.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 29.

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.