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.

Women to the fore

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company, Carriageworks, Sydney, November 4

AN enduring issue in dance is the predominance of male choreographers. This is overwhelmingly evident in ballet; less so in contemporary dance. Nevertheless, if you look at Sydney Dance Company’s programs over the past few years, the choreographers invited to join artistic director Rafael Bonachela on the mainstage have mostly been men, many highly established around the world. It can appear a very closed circle. Access begets success begets solid reputation begets work.

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Bonachela, to his great credit, is chipping away at the problem. At the late lamented Spring Dance festival he fielded an all-woman program of new work in 2012 and got a beauty out of it, Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic, which has since been seen playing with the big boys. This year’s New Breed showcase of new work included three women. True, two of them, company dancers and first-time choreographers Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap, made small, short works, but they were both terrific. The third woman, Gabrielle Nankivell, made the undisputed hit of the night.

Nankivell’s Wildebeest unflinchingly shows humankind as pack animal, one-on-one antagonist and vulnerable individual, the balance constantly and unsettlingly shifting. Nankivell has an exceptionally sure feel for mood and structure as bodies came together in strongly formal groups or scattered in eruptions of wild physicality, impelled by insistent cues in Luke Smiles’s shivery, thundery soundscape. Often they mysteriously disappeared into the gloom of Matthew Marshall’s brilliant lighting design, which precisely evoked the way dust is suspended in the air after a herd has raced through desolate land.

Wildebeest is an ambitious 25-minute work for 13 dancers and there is much more one could say about it. I hope to have that opportunity on a mainstage SDC program in the near future.

The brevity of pieces made by Barton (Scrutineer) and Yap (Do We) makes it impossible to tell whether they have a full-scale work in them, but Barton’s piercingly personal solo for herself was riveting and Yap’s playful duo for Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer revealed considerable wit and poise. (It was interesting to note the use animal imagery in four of the five pieces – wildebeest in Nankivell’s, an elephant in Lee Serle’s work and dogs in Cass Mortimer Eipper’s, while Yap brought a touch of higher primate behaviour into the picture. At the beginning of Do We, Doyle and Knauer approached each other with some caution, then had a good old sniff to establish whether they were friend or foe before ripping into their high-energy mating game. What does all this mean? Couldn’t say.)

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Serle’s White Elephant was an enigmatic piece in which dancers rarely connected emotionally but movement rippled through them to be taken up by others. There was indeed an elephant in the room, involved as a mysterious anchor point for Barton and Fiona Jopp as they stretched and unfurled as if extensions of the beast. As they did this others whispered through paper trumpets, calling on Celeste for help if my ears didn’t deceive me – which if you know your children’s books, was a reference to Babar the elephant.

White Elephant may sound unfathomable but I found its surreal mystery intriguing and its 17-minute timespan raced by. It felt a little sketchy, though, which is not unreasonable in the context of New Breed. The fifth work on the program, Mortimer Eipper’s Dogs and Baristas, unfortunately left me entirely unmoved with its unremarkable observations on human interaction presented with a goofy circus vibe.

Obviously all the works benefited from being able to harness the considerable skills of the SDC dancers. I would say, however, that at the moment the women of the company are looking more individual and interesting than the men. Barton in her own work and in White Elephant, Doyle in Do We, Jopp in White Elephant, Janessa Dufty in Wildebeest and Jesse Scales in Dogs and Baristas gave performances that wormed their way into the memory and hold on with some tenacity.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on November 7.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company

Sydney Theatre, March 17

WHAT a rich, diverse evening this is. 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.

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 Mack and 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 presence of a golden eagle, both of which he puts to excellent use in Raw Models.

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 actress 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. Nevertheless L’Chaim! is already an endearing addition to the inquiry.

Gideon Obarzanek's L'Chaim! Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Wearing a motley array of ordinary clothes in a nondescript space (costume Harriet Oxley, set and lighting Cisterne) 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.

Interplay runs in Sydney until April 5. Then Canberra, April 10-12, and Melbourne, April 30-May 10. 

iTMOi, Les Illuminations

Akram Khan Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 28. Les Illuminations, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Dance Company and Katie Noonan, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, August 28

AKRAM Khan is a choreographer with a hugely inquiring and generous mind. The list of his collaborators is long, stellar and diverse. He’s not a man content to do the same thing over and over with small variations. To celebrate the centenary of The Rite of Spring, Khan didn’t want to add yet another dance work to the extensive list of those who have used Stravinsky’s epoch-altering score. Instead he wanted to “enter Igor’s own thought process and follow its complex and disruptive path”. Thus  iTMOi, a particularly ugly and tricksy title that stands for “in the mind of Igor”.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

But not only does that phrase give a slightly impertinent suggestion of intimacy with the composer, it is misleading in terms of what iTMOi achieves. The piece is broadly another version of The Rite of Spring with different music (three composers plus a tiny snippet of Stravinsky), twice as long and with an altered ending. Ritual and sacrifice are its themes but there is little of the disruption Khan hopes to evoke. He would have to be far more transgressive than he is here to come anywhere near emulating, let alone surpassing, the effect of the bomb Stravinsky threw on that May day in 1913.

There is nothing better in iTMOi than its beginning, in which a preacher figure shouts a text about Abraham and Isaac against a dramatic, roiling soundscape. Bells toll and drums beat while dancers shudder, groan, hiss, whisper and chant in a primal and thrilling display of ecstatic possession. The feel is that of a particularly intense meeting of religious fanatics. Dancers wheel about in stuttering, speedy circles; there are springy elevations from deep plies in second.

The piece then becomes a series of scenes, somewhat unfocused in structure, that alternate between unrestrained physicality and slow-moving tableaux. A woman in a huge white crinoline commands attention; a younger woman, also in white, is covered in ash; a man tries to challenge the unity of the group but fails; another man stands on his head; yet another, semi-naked, prowls the stage, sporting long thin horns. Meaning is elusive, although there is a general sense of pagan wildness. Igor’s mind was clearly a pretty vibey place.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The muscular stamping and circling motifs are reminders of the folk elements in Stravinsky’s score; the slower sections offer arresting imagery but feel over-indulgent and not always full of the resonances Khan appears to be seeking. The work is only 65 minutes in length but is stretched beyond its natural span and ideal shape. It also seems to end twice before it really does, which is rarely effective. I was surprised to see that a dramaturge is among those credited.

The 11 dancers are superb, it goes without saying, and an Akram Khan work is always worth a visit. This one looks spectacular and is performed with brilliance. It’s just not his most coherent.

iTMOi was preceded by a wonderful collaboration between Sydney Dance Company, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and singer Katie Noonan. Why such riches all on one evening? Because the two works are all that is left of the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, canned earlier this year for cost reasons. SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, curated last year’s event and was to have done the same this year. It is a huge loss for the city.

Fortunately Les Illuminations survived the cull. At only 45 minutes it is a lovely jewel that deserves more than the handful of performances it’s being given. For those whose knowledge of Benjamin Britten is confined almost entirely to his operas (that would be me), the two works chosen by Bonachela for this project surprise and delight, as does the dance inspired by them.

The first half is playful and sexy, set to the four-movement Simple Symphony (1933-1934). Dancing on a catwalk set in the centre of the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, Janessa Dufty, Andrew Crawford, Fiona Jopp and Bernard Knauer flirt, tease, sparkle and seduce. Despite the restricted space there is room for a few playful tosses, much intertwining of limbs and lovely partnering in which the women are as supportive as the men. The expressive eye contact and the women’s gorgeous smiles lights up the intimate space.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

In the second half, Les Illuminations (1939), Noonan sings texts by Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who was a byword for dissipation and excess. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are black rather than the cream confections he created for Simple Symphony, and the atmosphere is much darker and erotically charged. The movement is edgier as dancers prowl and slither around one another or enter same-sex pas de deux. Juliette Barton looks coolly dangerous as she holds Charmene Yap in a tight grip; Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper are equally sensuous in their highly charged meeting.

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Noonan had a slightly tentative start at Wednesday’s opening but quickly showed her silvery, agile soprano to be an excellent match for Britten’s songs. Seventeen string players from the SSO were conducted by Roland Peelman in an absolutely luscious performance.

Les Illuminations has its final performances on August 31. iTMOi finishes September 1.