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.