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!

Super Discount

Back to Back Theatre, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, October 1

WHEN the members of Back to Back argue about who has the right to play certain characters, they enter one of the continuing and often fraught discussions in theatre. Blackface has long been consigned to the dustbin of history but are there enough roles for actors of colour? Is it right that a straight actor should play a gay character? What about the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, currently playing in New York: is that perfectly reasonable given that in Shakespeare’s time casts were exclusively male, so it’s sort of the same thing, turned around?

In Back to Back’s Super Discount, presented by Sydney Theatre Company, questions of this kind are posed in three fascinating, challenging dimensions.

But first to the premise. The company is still at rehearsal stage but actor Mark Deans is already all dressed up and ready to go as the superhero at the centre of a new show. Deans has his cape on and wears the look of someone who knows this is the way it should be. Others, however, are putting forward their claims to the role with much vehemence. The problem is, not all of them would seem entirely suitable, at least by the usual thespian standards.

David Woods, Simon Laherty and Scott Price in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

David Woods, Simon Laherty and Scott Price in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

I assume anyone who has got this far knows that Back to Back is a theatre company, based in Geelong, Victoria, in which most of the actors have an intellectual disability. It would be a grave mistake to categorise all the performers as if they were one type, however. Like everyone, each is an individual with different abilities and shortcomings. In Super Discount there’s heated argy-bargy about who is up to performing such a lead role and who has the right to do it, discussion in which Deans plays very little part. He has Down syndrome and says hardly anything during the course of the 70-minute piece. Which raises a second strand of thought. Who will advocate for Deans? Will anyone advocate for him? Does he need someone to advocate for him? Is special pleading required? What is justice?

A third layer is provided by David Woods, a conventionally abled actor who throws his weight around and shows in excruciating detail how he would act the role if he were Deans. Talk about throwing a bomb in the room. Seeing Woods wear the mask of disability is deeply distasteful from any perspective but it serves its purpose. The shallowness of his characterisation proves he is the least suitable potential superhero. He gets the part of the antihero instead.

Weaving in and out of the action are Brian Tilley, who does a nifty dance-off with Woods; Sarah Mainwaring, whose unsteady gait and shaky voice take on a singular poetry; Scott Price with his energetic and often very funny eruptions; and Simon Laherty, the grave, still centre of the piece. I keep seeing his long, beautiful, Modigliani face, hearing his deliberate voice and remembering the clarity and poise of his interaction with Deans.

No prizes for guessing who ends up playing the superhero in a final scene of pure, sweet joy.

Mark Deans and David Woods in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

Mark Deans and David Woods in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

The play is bookended with two lovely scenic elements. Super Discount opens with an entirely unexpected and utterly ravishing mini tornado rising and falling in the centre of the stage and ends with a rain of gold. (Director Bruce Gladwin also designed.) Disruption and transcendence jostle for position. Otherwise Super Discount is absolutely unsparing in demanding the audience’s attention. STC’s Wharf 1 is completely bare except for a few chairs and a table.

Back to Back is also merciless, and rightly so, in making its audience sift and weigh prejudices. It tests thinking about what acting is, and what theatre is, and what skills are required to do and to make theatre.

Interestingly, it also tests the skills one needs as an audience member. Passive listening – let’s call it sitting back and hearing – won’t do at Super Discount (great title). An intense act of listening is required, given the different types of vocal production from these actors. And before anyone thinks I’m being politically correct here, the same level of active engagement – exactly! – was required at STC’s The Maids if one was to get the full measure of Isabelle Huppert’s gloriously wacky, heavily accented performance.

Back to Back’s knotty, subversive theatre isn’t easy, but it is unforgettable. There’s just one more week in Sydney then on to Melbourne. There is talk of Back to Back’s hugely successful Ganesh versus the Third Reich (which premiered in 2011) coming to Sydney next year, to which I can only say, not before time. Meanwhile, after Super Discount in Melbourne Back to Back takes Ganesh to Tokyo (December 6-8) on the back of an extensive international schedule this year that has taken in the US, France, Germany and Canada. Is there another Australian theatre company that has toured so widely to such acclaim? Happy to hear from any candidates, but I think not.

Super Discount ends in Sydney on October 19 and runs at Melbourne’s Malthouse from November 13.