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.