Bonachela/Obarzanek, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, November 2

What better way to mark a milestone birthday than by getting some of the old gang back together again? Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50, choreographed for Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary program, returned to the stage some of SDC’s most memorable artists, among them Bradley Chatfield, Wakako Asano, Sheree da Costa and Lea Francis. It was a graceful way of paying tribute to earlier days, as was a short film that preceded the Bonachela/Obarzanek double bill.

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Jesse Scales and Sheree da Costa in Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. Photo: Don Arnold

The film reminded the audience of the dramatic, theatrical style of former artistic director Graeme Murphy, who with Janet Vernon led SDC for an astonishing 31 years. There were snippets from Poppy, Some Rooms, Synergy with Synergy, Berlin, Tivoli and Grand, among others. The film also showed the very different approach to contemporary dance of current artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who this year celebrates 10 years with the company. He was represented by We Unfold, Raw Models, 2 One Another, Nude Live, ab [intra] and more.

Murphy and Bonachela may have little in common as choreographers but they’ve put heart and soul into the company. That it is still a potent force in Australian and international dance is remarkable. “Graeme’s influence can’t be overstated,” Bonachela told the audience before the performance, noting the “beautiful coincidence” of its being Murphy’s birthday on opening night. (Murphy is now 69 but far from retired, continuing his work as an opera director. A new ballet, The Happy Prince, is part of The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season.)

Obarzanek, himself a former dancer with SDC, chose 10 alumni to take part in Us 50, and they were not there simply to bask in the glory of once having been a star. Some of them won’t see 60 again but they were there to dance and dance they did, holding their own glowingly alongside SDC’s current ensemble of young ‘uns.

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Wakako Asano (front) in Us 50. Photo: Pedro Greig

Among much else in Us 50 Obarzanek explored how movement looks on older bodies versus younger ones, how dance is passed from one person to another, the fascination of two people working as one and the power of a large group. The piece looked deceptively simple but ebbed and flowed to Chris Clark’s propulsive score with a great deal of subtlety and a deep vein of emotion.

At one point Chatfield was left alone on stage as others melted away. He walked a little, as if trying out some ideas. Then he was joined by a few others, then more who watched Chatfield closely. Pedestrian movement morphed into dance and alumna Kathryn Dunn broke away to enjoy the freedom of being, well, one of the most glamorous dancers SDC has produced. Other cherishable moments: Stefan Karlsson (alumnus) and Emily Seymour (current member) shimmying away to one side as the pack moved on; da Costa and young Jesse Scales with their heads on one another’s shoulders; the current SDC dancers forming what looked like a protective huddle around the older dancers (the others were Bill Pengelly, Kip Gamblin, Nina Veretennikova and Linda Ridgeway Gamblin). There was a moment for everyone, with Asano looking particularly radiant. She spent 17 years with SDC and along with Vernon was one of Murphy’s great muses. It was so touching to see her again.

Ten alumni and 15 SDC dancers added up to 25. Making up the 50 was a group of untrained, unrehearsed non-dancers, drawn from the audience anew each evening. They represented the part in SDC’s history played by those who only sit and watch. (On opening night as a special treat the unrehearsed group included another 10 former dancers, including Ross Philip and Tracey Carrodus. Ah the memories!)

If Obarzanek’s concept sounded iffy, it was utter bliss in practice. The untrained, who rose from their seats part-way through Us 50 to go onstage, were not asked for anything outside of their capabilities. Guided via earpieces by assistant choreographer and SDC’s new rehearsal associate Charmene Yap – she will be much missed from the stage – the citizen-dancers’ faces shone as they mingled with the professionals.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths. Photo: Don Arnold

A revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths opened the evening. First seen in 2010, it takes on a different complexion in this new context. A series of meditations on different aspects of breath, including the first and the last, it now conjures thoughts of the evanescence of a dance career. It was danced thrillingly at the opening and put the spotlight on some of Bonachela’s newer recruits, particularly Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleoris in the work’s central duet. Longstanding company member Juliette Barton has returned from maternity leave in even more striking form than before, if that were possible.

The evening’s laurels, though, went to the glorious SDC alumni who brought back so many memories and the untrained civilian bodies who proved that yes, anyone can dance.

Ends November 9.

Abandon

School of Arts Theatre, Townsville, July 24.

I WAS much taken by the concept for Abandon. The word can mean to cut loose in a negative sense, to rid oneself of something or someone; or it can mean a surrender to ecstatic states. Dancenorth’s website promised heightened emotions – euphoria, jealousy, fury, madness and so on – but something more too, a particularly tantalising three-way artistic collaboration. The idea of Dancenorth’s artistic director Raewyn Hill, Opera Queensland’s artistic director Lindy Hume and boundary-stretching classical accordion virtuoso James Crabb getting together on a project was enticing. The icing on the cake was the music: Crabb would arrange Handel arias for himself and cellist Teije Hylkema. More than enough to get one on the plane to Townsville, in northern Queensland. (And I was far from the only person to have put in a lot of kilometres to get there.)

The challenge for complex collaborations – five dancers, four singers, three designers, two musicians, one composer – is getting the mix just right. Not too much of this, add a little of that, check the temperature, the texture, the balance, the structural soundness. In Abandon too many things are off, not necessarily by much, but by enough to compromise the success of the whole.

Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon

Alice Hinde and Monique Latemore in Abandon

Abandon is set within a three-sided space of pale hue made from blocks that rise high above the performers and are malleable and responsive enough to be almost an additional performer. Throughout the 70 minutes of the piece entrances and exits, sheltering spaces and windows to the outside are created to great effect in Bruce McKinven’s set, glowingly lit by Bosco Shaw. Dancers, singers and musicians are dressed in covetable garments from a collection by Alistair Trung, mostly in black with some accents, but all different and all both flattering and appropriate for the ways in which the performers need to move.

So far so very good. The physical look is strikingly individual and Crabb’s interpretation of the music dramatic and assertive.

But then the trouble starts. An important part of the design is an increasingly disarrayed “floor” of plastic bags – visually interesting, fair enough conceptually and aurally irritating. There’s a hell of a racket as the urban detritus is scuffed around the space and it makes an acoustically tricky space even more so for the four young singers, sopranos Annie Lower and Monique Latemore, alto Elizabeth Lewis and bass Christopher Richardson.

Hill’s choreography requires the singers to be almost as active as the dancers and they do it gamely and effectively, but it’s very hard to ask them to assert young voices over the merry crackle of refuse. It didn’t surprise me that wayward pitch was occasionally an issue and that it was frequently difficult to discern exactly what was being sung. I couldn’t say Hume has discovered an exceptional Handelian in this group: while there were many lovely moments, the singers struggled to realise fully the different moods and qualities of the chosen arias, choruses and a duet, selected from Tolomeo, Orlando, Alcina, Hercules and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Nevertheless, there is never a time at which Ah, mio cor! from Alcina is unwelcome, nor the glorious Stille amare from Tolomeo.

Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon

Elizabeth Lewis (foreground) in Abandon

Truth to tell, taken out of context one Handel aria can sound fairly much like another, particularly when there are no surtitles to give a reference point, or at least they do in Abandon. Generalised angst rather than sexier abandon reigns and Hill’s choreography, often in unison, is mostly too repetitive to be of assistance. It’s a relief when veteran Bradley Chatfield, formerly of Sydney Dance Company and now Dancenorth’s dance director, performs a lively section based on boxing moves to accompany Affanno tiranno from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo.

Hill’s arrangement of performers is most affecting and suits the music when she turns them into formal tableaux vivants. At times they lie beside one another, cram themselves into a small space in the wall, stand in lines, put a head on a shoulder or offer a gesture of consolation. When the dancers stagger, posture, and play with their hair the deliberate awkwardness conveys little other than awkwardness.

Right at the end there is a lovely moment of clarity as dancer Andrew Searle has an introspective solo to Stille amare. It’s an aria for a dying hero and Searle seems, appropriately, to be seeking release from the group. Alas, right at this point the group is moving boxes about. But there, with Hylkema’s cello making the spine shiver, despite the distracting busyness I felt a real emotional connection that trumped the exasperation that, for me, had so far predominated.

Abandon ends in Townsville on August 1. It is possible there will be performances in Brisbane next year.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian, July 26.