2 One Another, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney. October 5.

Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela clearly adores 2 One Another. Made in 2012, it was revived in 2013, 2014 and 2015, is much travelled and this season celebrates its 100th performance by making its first reappearance in Sydney. Next stop is Shanghai.

Audiences love it too, and why not? It’s a glamorous production that shows the full company in ferocious form. Just when you think the SDC dancers couldn’t possibly look more magnificent, more dynamic, more super-human, they do.

Sydney Dance Company's 2 One Another. Photo by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company in 2 One Another (earlier cast). Photo: Pedro greig

There are only six dancers of SDC’s current complement of 16 who were in the original cast but Bonachela chooses his company members well. The youngest of them haven’t yet fully developed the combination of intensity, muscularity and sophistication that the more experienced dancers wear like a second skin but they add other colours. Their hunger for the work is palpable and rather touching.

It’s a beautiful thing to see three young men, Sam Young-Wright, Izzac Carroll and Nelson Earl, growing into themselves. Young-Wright and Carroll are tall and rangy and both still have a coltish air about them; Earl brings a sense of danger to the stage. Each has a distinct personality.

Tony Assness’s design, Nick Wales’s music and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting work together brilliantly to create a highly charged sensory experience and Bonachela’s choreography is intricately detailed and patterned. Those 16 amazing dancers are pushed to the limit and beyond in a complex weave of group dynamics, duos and solos.

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Current cast of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro Greig

The title of the work is illustrated in the opening moments. Most of the dancers stand close to one another, flanked on one side by a solo figure and on the other by a seated duo. All are dressed similarly in form-fitting dark green with mesh inserts and, as lights flash and unsettling music thunders, they gesture in unison. The unanimity doesn’t hold and soon the piece is off and running.

Partnerships form, dissolve and reform differently, echoed by changing paintings in light on the huge LED screen at the back of the stage. For some sections the music moans and groans like a living creature while others moments are bathed in the aural glow of the Baroque and the Renaissance. The score also incorporates some spoken word in the form of poetry fragments by Samuel Webster.

It’s hard to decipher all of Webster’s contribution in the sound mix and greater access to it would have been useful.

The 2012 program prints some of Webster’s lines and they speak of great intimacy. Bonachela writes in his program note (both then and now) that Webster responded to things he saw from the dancers in the rehearsal room at an early stage of development and then later the dancers used his words to create movement. “The text that Samuel created is very beautiful and full of love and emotion and I sought to create movement that explored all those intensities of human interaction,” Bonachela writes.

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Janessa Dufty in 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro greig

For the most part 2 One Another doesn’t achieve that goal. There is so much to stimulate the eye and please the ear that the somewhat cool temperature takes a little bit of time to register, but after perhaps 40 minutes of wonderful dancing one looks in vain for deep human connection. Assness’s CV bulges with creative direction for big events and he knows how to deliver the wow factor. It’s just that 2 One Another could do with a bit less of that.

Individual company members stir the blood, as they always do, although Assness has done his best to impose a degree of anonymity on the dancers by styling them in a way that means you have to look twice and three times at some of them to confirm they are indeed who you think they are.

Still, it’s impossible not to register Janessa Dufty and Charmene Yap in particular (one of Bonachela’s most precious attributes as a choreographer is the equal standing he gives women and men). Dufty and Yap were both in the premiere of this work five and a half years ago and their power and authority are still a joy to see.

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Juliette Barton and Bernhard Knauer in 2 One Another. Photo: Pedro Greig

The same is true for Juliette Barton, who has been with SDC since 2009 and is ever more magisterial as the years go by. Some warmth emerges about two thirds of the way through the 65-minute piece when the dancers appear in looser, red garments and, in a memorable duet, Barton and Bernhard Knauer reach for something beyond exhilarating movement.

Ends October 14.

Liveworks: Chan, Gunn & Lloyd, Choy

Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art. The Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, October 27, November 2.

A pulsating, unforgiving light picks out Kristina Chan’s forehead and underscores her cheekbones, sculpting her face into an eerie mask. A lone figure in the gloom, she rises to the balls of her feet then drives her heels into the floor.

Up and down, up and down, again and again she goes. The beat imposed by big, industrial blocks of sound is relentless, as if Chan is being driven deep into the earth. Perhaps she is the last person on Earth.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

A Faint Existence is Chan’s eloquent, despairing view of the world’s physical degradation. There is no anger or call to action. This is the end. What you choose to do about it is up to you. As is often the way of these things, there is exceptional beauty in the depiction of existential threat. The visual elements are few and they are rigorously austere, although there is an oddly calming suggestion of repose in the use of curves rather than straight lines and the way light glows rather than burns. Clare Britton’s design has a central mound that suggests by turns a parched landscape and a dying sun. At the back of the space, high up, a slender, twisting ribbon of fabric sparkles with life-enhancing colours although the great rushes of air that occasionally animate it feel less benign.

There is a moment of immense poignancy when Chan lies motionless beneath that ribbon, so far out of her reach. Chan, who is choreographer as well as dancer, has an ability to suspend time that is as exquisite as her phenomenal physical control. She understands the power of stillness and uses it potently.

James Brown’s score and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting are integral to the intense impact made by A Faint Existence, and it is interesting to note the involvement of a dramaturg, Victoria Hunt. If only more choreographers took this path. This is a dark work whose intent is absolutely clear while having an air of ineffable mystery. There were only a handful of performances but A Faint Existence is surely destined for many more.

Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer premiered about six weeks ago in Chunky Move’s Next Move program in Melbourne so it, like A Faint Existence, is hot off the presses. While the two works share a less-than-optimistic view of the future, Mermermer has slapstick energy and deep devotion to the ridiculous in the face of encroaching darkness. This is Waiting for Godot, if only Beckett had jazzed it up with shiny party streamers and not repeated himself quite so much (Mermermer runs a tight 50 minutes). Gunn and Lloyd chat away to one another and seem to find not only comfort but necessity in their tangling, tumbling, sweaty physical connection.

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Jo Lloyd and Nicola Gunn in Mermermer. Photo: Gregory Lorenzuti 

While the big curtain at the back of the performance area suggests overt theatricality, and therefore the presence of the audience, Gunn and Lloyd don’t look beyond each other. There are no ironic quotation marks around their actions. This immersion in one another is touching and the effect is amplified by the era-style-forgot costuming (Shio Otani designed). The women look very, very ordinary. They look human.

The work’s title carries implications of the persistence or otherwise of memory. It also implies a fading of language and perhaps therefore a weakening of ties between people. Gunn and Lloyd have tried to keep it all going but it looks as if larger, less chaotic and impersonal forces will prevail. Still, like Didi and Gogo, they have gallantly given it their best shot.

Choy Ka Fai’s SoftMachine: XiaoKe x ZiHan was another highlight of Liveworks, sadly only in the first week. Choy, a Berlin-based Singaporean artist, has created a series of contemporary dance portraits combining video with text and movement. This one, featuring dancer Xioa Ke and her artist husband Zhou Zihan (who perform as XiaoKe and ZiHan), takes a critical look at censorship and control in China. Much of it is wryly humorous, there is a glorious piss-take of a propaganda song and a chilling conclusion.

In about 40 minutes it covers a lot of territory and offers keen insights. I wish, though, I’d read Keith Gallasch’s interview with Choy Ka Fai in RealTime magazine before seeing XiaoKe x ZiHan. Apparently an invitation from the Cultural Bureau of China to pop in for a cup of tea is not something you want to receive, knowledge that would have enhanced an exchange between Xaio Ke and Zhou Zihan near the end of the work. Good to know now though. Read the piece here. It’s terrific.

Liveworks continues at Carriageworks, Sydney, until November 6. Mermermer ends November 5.

Untamed: Sydney Dance Company

Wildebeest and Anima. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, October 20.

In the double bill Untamed, Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest and Rafael Bonachela’s Anima come at the same question – what is our true, essential nature? – from quite different perspectives.

Nankivell sets humankind’s most primal impulses against the slick, guarded sophistications of modern life. The dancers are at one moment instinctive pack animals huddling together for safety or fighting ferociously for dominance; the next they are cool, automaton-like figures who could be composed of binary code.

At the centre of Bonachela’s work is a long, slow, intimate duo for two men, framed by a frenzy of activity. Imagine, if you will, the stage as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, charged with dancers rather than particles. They whizz about at jaw-dropping speed, occasionally smash into someone and then dash off, only to return with another burst of superhuman stamina.

Broadly speaking you could say that Nankivell is fascinated by the strangeness of the human animal and the way it arranges itself into societies while Bonachela wants to give physical expression to unseeable private thoughts and emotions – to make them literally take flight.

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest. Photo: Pedro Greig

It’s a strong program, aptly named and thrillingly danced by Bonachela’s exceptional ensemble. As the dancers lined up to take their bow after Anima (it came second), they looked exhausted but exhilarated. The opening night audience responded with a huge ovation, sending waves of energy back to the performers, who took call after call. Some of them have been with Bonachela since he took over the artistic directorship of SDC in late 2008 and others joined only this year, but every last one of them dives into the work with equal passion and daring. It’s wonderful to see how physically diverse the group is and how united in intensity.

Wildebeest premiered in SDC’s new choreography program, New Breed, in 2014. It was by far the most accomplished work on the bill and it’s heartening to see it given greater exposure. Nankivell sees beauty and wonder in the primitive, animalistic self. In the opening solo Bernhard Knauer (on opening night; Juliette Barton shares the role) luxuriates in the discovery of the body’s potential as the dancer evolves from wobbly-limbed newborn to hyper-alert individual.

Impelled by Luke Smiles’s thundery, shivery soundscape, groups form, attack and scatter. Suddenly the mood changes dramatically and mechanistic formality takes over. Warm-bloodedness and wild individuality are replaced by a faceless mass, led by the brilliantly chilly Holly Doyle and Todd Sutherland. Their flashing arms bring to mind a futuristic version of an Indian god whose original purpose has been long forgotten, and the brief outbreak of night-clubby group gyrations has a similar feel of blankly repeated ritual.

Ending back where it began, Wildebeest closes with a brief solo, memorably performed by Janessa Dufty, which suggests a continuous loop of existence, possibly even parallel universes. If one has an optimistic cast of mind it also suggests that no matter how thick the accretions of time and experience, at bottom we are sensual, aware, vulnerable, imaginative and inquisitive beings.

Bonachela made Anima to dance-ready music by Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova, prefacing her Concerto for cello and strings (2008) with the short Insight for string trio (2002). Tabakova’s restless, densely packed rhythms propel and buoy the swiftest movements persuasively. Soloists, duos, quartets and larger groups take the stage in turns, briefly, powerfully and anonymously. They are a muscular choir of angels whose expansiveness and high-flying freedom is in stark contrast to the groundedness of the men at the heart of the work.

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Rafael Bonachela’s Anima. Photo: Pedro Greig

The cello concerto’s middle movement, which Tabakova titles Longing, has a long-breathed, sweet melody that sits above a cloud of strings before darker intimations set in. It invites, and is given, a heartfelt pas de deux that on opening night Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis invested with tenderness and something like emotional caution or unease. There isn’t enough, however, to sustain the nearly nine minutes of music, so the dominant impression of Anima is its pedal-to-the-metal physical exuberance rather than the desired interplay of interior spirit and its exterior manifestation.

The blurry suggestions of dancers’ bodies, designed by Clemens Habicht and projected on to a screen at the back of the stage, are an intriguing, albeit a little too self-effacing, part of the concept. Far less intriguing are Aleisha Jelbart’s costumes for Anima, which essentially make it look as if these spectacular, heroic dancers were sent out in their underwear. Bonachela likes the dancers’ bodies to be attired relatively simply, it would seem, a state Fiona Holley achieved successfully with her earth-toned tops and shorts for Wildebeest.

Longtime Bonachela collaborator Benjamin Cisterne lit both works, rather overdoing the colour washes in Anima. With the arrival of each new shade in the central pas de deux one rather wondered what it meant. In Wildebeest, on the other hand, the connection with movement and score was precise.

SDC has released its program for 2017 and Wildebeest will not be a one-season wonder. In February and March it is danced on a US tour as part of a triple bill (the other works are Bonachela’s Frame of Mind and Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models) and is performed around Australia with Frame of Mind in June, July and August.

Good old New Breed, one must say. Except there is no New Breed scheduled for 2017. It was always clear that generous philanthropy organisation The Balnaves Foundation was supporting New Breed for three years only, and next month’s event is the third (Carriageworks, November 29-December 10). Presumably no new financial backer has been found at this stage to continue the program.

Over the years SDC has found various ways to bring new and under-appreciated choreographers into the fold. The late, lamented Spring Dance festival at the Sydney Opera House, for instance, brought Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic to the attention of a most appreciative public in Sydney in 2012 and Bonachela gave it a mainstage season in 2013.

Let’s hope someone from the 2016 New Breed – participants are SDC dancers Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales, plus Shian Law and Rachel Arianne Ogle – comes up trumps. But of course you can’t guarantee that. It’s why you have to keep on looking out for and giving chances to those who show a spark. Which costs money, and brings us back to arts funding. Don’t get me started.

Untamed ends in Sydney on October 29.

Off the Record: Force Majeure with Dance Integrated Australia

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 17.

Marnie Palomares has Alex Jones pinned against a wall and is trying to put words into his mouth. Literally. This would be a resonant image under any circumstances but as Jones is deaf it seems an even more intrusive and futile act than usual. Except it’s a moment that also feels achingly intimate.

Off the Record is full of pungent provocations like this as it investigates how information is transferred from one person to another and what is revealed – or hidden or misunderstood – in the process.

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Marnie Palomares and Jana Castillo in Off the Record. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

The stakes are upped by the knowledge that the performers’ real-life experiences were used as raw material, so one must assume that Jana Castillo did indeed incite a friend to sully her pristine Barbie collection by ripping dolls from their boxes and using them to demonstrate sex moves.

How much has been fictionalised (Zoe Coombs Marr was the text dramaturg) is impossible to tell. It adds an intriguing layer of perception in a piece that is already multi-layered and conducted in three languages: spoken text, movement, and the beautiful fusion of silent communication and movement that is Auslan. Occasional additions of audio-description and captioning bob up too. There’s a lot going on – so much so in this wide, relatively shallow space that occasionally there’s a sense of being at a tennis match, except one where the ball is in play at both ends.

The conjunction of arts and methods sets up a rich visual and imaginative world. Castillo’s extraordinary plasticity is used to convey her frustration about how bodies aren’t always obedient (“I don’t tic when I’m on stage,” she says). Auslan interpreter Neil Phipps has a great double act with Jones, with the two offering one of the funniest, most telling scenes in the piece as they vie for attention. They also share an exquisitely tender moment of connection, beautifully framed in Benjamin Cisterne’s austere set and lighting.

Gerard O’Dwyer’s sweet, serious presence adds a quieter and more mysterious thread to the complex business of how we explain ourselves to the world. He is a good person who just wants to be liked but it’s not necessarily easy.

O’Dwyer often speaks as if to himself. Palomares, on the other hand, is all super-confidence as she lays bare language’s potential for extraordinary unreliability. Interpreting for Jones at one point with utmost fluency, she is brightly engaged and totally clueless.

Danielle Micich (artistic director of Force Majeure) and Philip Channells (of Dance Integrated Australia) co-directed for Carriageworks as part of its valuable New Normal program. This is designed to bring artists from various disciplines and backgrounds together and to give greater mainstream prominence to work that is so frequently – and undeservedly – under the radar. In Off the Record Micich and Channells fluently cut across classifications and barriers as dancers speak, actors dance and the lines between them are blurred. The audience’s world is enlarged.

Off the Record takes a little time to get into its stride but by the end I wanted to know much more about these people – imperfect as we all are but significantly more honest about it. The show had a very short season in Sydney but one assumes there are hopes for more exposure. Off the Record is worth it.

It was impossible to see Off the Record without thinking of the company’s recent whack to the head by the Federal Government. Force Majeure recently lost four-year funding from the Australia Council after the debacle of former federal arts minister George Brandis’s money shuffle, taking from the Australia Council to set up his ominously named National Program for Excellence in the Arts. (Whose definition of excellence, pray tell?) After Brandis was replaced by Mitch Fifield some money – but not all – was restored to the Australia Council and Fifield turned the NPEA into a program called Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund.

The Catalyst website says the fund has $12 million annually to invest: “Catalyst will assist organisations to forge new creative and financial partnerships and stimulate innovative ways to build participation by Australians in our cultural life. It will enable access to high quality arts experiences in regional communities and international activities that achieve cultural diplomacy objectives,” it says.

Projects by small to medium-sized organisations are given priority.

The key word is “projects”. The Australia Council funding allowed companies to have certainty for four years; project funding is finite. Force Majeure also has triennial NSW Government funding and is a resident company at Carriageworks. So it’s not going out of business, as far as we can tell, but will undoubtedly have to do less business. As will so many other small-to-medium companies, as they were the ones hit by the Australia Council cuts.

This is the area where most experimentation takes place, it’s where artists find their voices and hone their skills. It’s where some of the most surprising, exhilarating and challenging work can be found. It’s where audiences can find a lot of bang for not many bucks. If the Federal Government were serious about wanting high quality arts and culture to be available to all, this is the last place it should be reducing funding. The amount of money involved is already in rounding-error territory when you look at the Federal Budget as a whole. It really is a disgrace.

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.

POSTSCRIPT:

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 http://www.steps.ch).

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!

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.

Quintett, Frame of Mind

Sydney Theatre, March 9 and 10.

IT was a great coup for Rafael Bonachela to secure William Forsythe’s Quintett for Sydney Dance Company. It is a jewel of the contemporary repertoire with so many facets and colours it could be seen again and again without exhausting its possibilities.

And to see it danced as was on its opening night night – well, Sydney is blessed. Quintett is incredibly demanding technically but its first cast of Chloe Leong, Jesse Scales, David Mack, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Sam Young-Wright made only radiance visible.

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

Forsythe created Quintett in 1993 as his young wife, Tracy-Kai Maier, was dying. It’s not, however, a work shrouded in sorrow, nor does it shake its fist at death despite flashes of anger. Quintett vibrates with life and with qualities that imply continuance: endurance, resilience, consolation.

Relationships between the three men and two women are in constant flux, as is the movement language: wherever there is an odd number there is an inbuilt level of anticipation, surprise and often tension. Crawling, falling, flailing, distorting, watching, leaving and arriving are all part of the physical mix but Quintett also repeatedly returns to the beautiful formalities and certainties of ballet. There are fixed points of visual order as Forsythe challenges the possibilities of what the body can do in dance.

Order is also imposed gently but rigorously by the score, Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in which the looped voice of an old man singing phrases of a hymn could conceivably play until the stars turn cold. A 26-second fragment is played repeatedly, first unaccompanied and then with quietly growing and changing orchestral support that flows and lulls serenely, never presuming to swamp the slightly tremulous and hesitant vocal line. As the few words are heard again and again, one becomes aware of the halts, where the breath is taken, the tiny stress on the word “yet”, and so on. There is so much in apparently so little.

Bryars came across the man, a tramp, in 1971. His name is unknown and he died not long after but in Jesus’ Blood there remains for all time his unfailing optimism. In this way he lives on.

As the curtain falls a woman tries to leave the stage but is several times prevented, gently pushed back into the fading light. Her dance will continue whether there is anyone to see it or not. She too lives on in the glow of memory.

Speaking of memory, some may recall another use in dance of Jesus’ Blood. Maguy Marin’s 1981 work May B also uses Bryars’s first version of the work (the initial 26-minute arrangement was later expanded into a version lasting three times that length and includes Tom Waits vocals entering near the end). May B was presented at the 1992 Adelaide Festival and then had a Sydney season and is a work performed to this day.

In the first SDC Quintett cast the balletic qualities of the performers gave their lines brilliant clarity. It’s worth mentioning that David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper are both former members of West Australian Ballet. Sam Young-Wright – exceptionally tall with an arabesque that goes on forever – was perhaps an unexpected member of the first cast as he was plucked from Sydney Dance Company’s first Pre-Professional Year group to join the company only this year. He looked wonderful, as did ethereal Chloe Leong (also a new company member) and tiny but magisterial Jesse Scales.

The next night’s Quintett cast had a rougher, more ferocious quality. Some of the edges of the lines were blurred but the emotional stakes were incredibly high. Richard Cilli, recently returned to SDC after some time in Europe, looked quite anarchic in places and Juliette Barton was incredible, dancing with burning fervour. Janessa Dufty was a relatively late replacement for the injured Charmene Yap but fitted into this cast seamlessly. Bernhard Knauer and Todd Sutherland completed this wonderful group

Quintett is followed by a new full-company work by Bonachela, Frame of Mind, choreographed to thrillingly muscular music written by Bryce Dessner for the Kronos Quartet (heard here in recording).

Sydney Dance Company in Frame of Mind. Photo: Peter Grieg

Sydney Dance Company in Frame of Mind. Photo: Peter Grieg

Bonachela has described himself as a movement junkie and this taste frequently leads him to include more steps per bar of music than are strictly necessary. One can feel over-stimulated or over-satiated – or, as in Frame of Mind, there are times when dance and score are in competition with one another so that attention is split rather than focused. Nevertheless, Frame of Mind fruitfully reaches for intimate moods and stage pictures that imply characters and narratives to a degree unusual in Bonachela’s work.

An intriguing atmosphere is created by Ralph Myers’s evocative set – mottled, angled walls against which dancers lounge broodingly. Myers of course, as well as being a set designer, is artistic director of Belvoir and once again one has to salute Bonachela for the connections he has made and continues to make in Sydney’s cultural life. His eagerness to collaborate widely has been one of the defining characteristics of his time at SDC and has brought the company great riches.

The large window (with wide sill) in one of the walls is perhaps a rather obvious metaphor for a frame of mind, but it looks very beautiful with Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting shining through and provides a contemplative perch for dancers in quieter moments.

Bonachela has his dancers surge and retreat in a multiplicity of combinations and there is a terrific frisson when the 16 men and women coalesce on several occasions into hard-core unison – yes, that may be an oldie but it’s still a goodie.

Several times during Frame of Mind there were fleeting traces of Quintett in one or two balletic shapes and stuttering bodies, or at least that’s what it seemed to me. They implied a spirit of homage to Forsythe and while I’m not sure if they were intended, or if I am reading too much into them, they felt absolutely right.

Frame of Mind ends in Sydney on March 21. Canberra, April 30-May 2; Melbourne, May 6-16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 11.