Orb, Sydney Dance Company

Full Moon, choreographed by Cheng Tsung-lung, Ocho, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela. Sydney Dance Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, May 1.

At first glance the two works in Sydney Dance Company’s Orb look quite different but they are close kin under the skin and together make an exceptionally absorbing double bill.

Cheng Tsung-lung, who choreographed the opening Full Moon, is artistic director of Taipei’s Cloud Gate 2 and steeped in the aesthetic of that company’s senior arm, Lin Hwai-min’s incomparable Cloud Gate Theatre. The dance is contemporary but holds hands with age-old traditions. When you recognise shapes from martial arts or the influence of meditative practices, you are taken into a world where great antiquity co-exists with the here and now and gives it texture and meaning.

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Cheng Tsung-lung’s Full Moon for Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Pedro Greig

SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela is a lively exponent of movement, music and design as their own reward. So often in his work there is no past and no future. It’s a world of sensation rather than explanation – although not in every single case, as his recent Lux Tenebris (2016) and Frame of Mind (2015) show.

Indeed, Bonachela does of late seem to be edging towards a greater degree of character exposition and hints of personal narrative. In short, his work just seems to be more human, and that’s certainly the case with Ocho. It’s delightful to see Bonachela and Cheng connect on this fundamental level.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

As if to emphasis the complementary nature of the evening, the 16-member company is divided straight down the middle so there are eight dancers in each work with strictly no overlap. It’s a lovely round number and therefore eminently suitable for Full Moon, which employs five women and three men while Ocho uses the reverse combination. (And don’t forget: Ocho is Spanish for eight.)

In the numinous Full Moon, made doubly so by Damien Cooper’s exquisite lighting, there is a profound sense of eternal motion, and not only because Cheng’s piece has thrilling eruptions of speed and full-bodied swirls. He also finds vivid life in what appears to be complete stillness, arrestingly seen as Sam Young-Wright stands in the half-light with Jesse Scales astride a shoulder, both of them alert and energised, and Bernhard Knauer sits serenely on the floor for many minutes, his demeanour a mixture of relaxed poise and deep contemplation before rising to dance with glowing Janessa Dufty.

They embody the constants of existence: breath in and out, the circular flow of blood and the creation and release of energy. From time to time dancers are spotted standing apart or lying in the shadows but they never seem subservient to the action around them. No dancer ever leaves the stage and one is always aware of where each is.

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Holly Doyle in Full Moon. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cheng’s richly detailed and often surprising choreography frequently works at varying speeds simultaneously, propelled by Lim Giong’s gleaming commissioned score. It’s almost as if alternate universes have met and melded: Full Moon requires intense concentration. At one moment the eye is caught by the serene companionship of Chloe Leong and Todd Sutherland, then attention is demanded by Latisha Sparks’s acrobatic leaps and surges, given extra fullness by her wild red dress (Fan Huai-chih’s costumes are just gorgeous).

Most striking of all is Holly Doyle in her long striped gown, often covering her face with her hair, extending a dagger-like leg high or turning inexorably like a whirling dervish. Cheng isn’t afraid of emotional extremes. Perhaps you can blame the full moon.

Ocho, like Full Moon, uses the power of stillness but here it’s not a form of inner radiance. It is menacing and painful, a prelude to attack or an expression of neediness. Ocho, if you will, is the dark side of the moon.

Despite the bleak intimations of this brutal, post-apocalyptic image of life, each woman and man in Ocho is an individual with clearly expressed wants and each is riveting. First seen as disconnected figures in a coldly lit glass enclosure, Bonachela’s five men and three women emerge singly to mark their territory. The atmosphere is incredibly threatening, aided and abetted by Nick Wales’s new score that blends brass, flute and electronica in a most unsettling way.

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Davide Di Giovanni, front, in Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

When all but one have ventured into the open the competitiveness is ferocious. The one who stays behind, Charmene Yap, is tentative and vulnerable, although all are needy. At some point they all scatter to go who knows where but return to the known quantity of their sordid fish bowl (terrific set and costumes by David Fleischer, lights by Cooper). When they touch, they cling to one another with what looks like desperation.

Finally some measure of calm – optimism even – is achieved and Ocho ends in peaceful unison as Wales introduces a Yolgnu song invoking the protection of the Spirit Lady. Alongside Yap, Juliette Barton, Izzac Carroll, Davide Di Giovanni, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Petros Treklis and Josephine Wiese reach out their arms and circle slowly.

Actually, in its final moments Ocho recalled nothing more than the ending of Full Moon. Full circle.

Orb ends in Sydney on May 13. Then Melbourne, May 17-20 and Canberra, May 25-27.

Untamed: Sydney Dance Company

Wildebeest and Anima. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, October 20.

In the double bill Untamed, Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest and Rafael Bonachela’s Anima come at the same question – what is our true, essential nature? – from quite different perspectives.

Nankivell sets humankind’s most primal impulses against the slick, guarded sophistications of modern life. The dancers are at one moment instinctive pack animals huddling together for safety or fighting ferociously for dominance; the next they are cool, automaton-like figures who could be composed of binary code.

At the centre of Bonachela’s work is a long, slow, intimate duo for two men, framed by a frenzy of activity. Imagine, if you will, the stage as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, charged with dancers rather than particles. They whizz about at jaw-dropping speed, occasionally smash into someone and then dash off, only to return with another burst of superhuman stamina.

Broadly speaking you could say that Nankivell is fascinated by the strangeness of the human animal and the way it arranges itself into societies while Bonachela wants to give physical expression to unseeable private thoughts and emotions – to make them literally take flight.

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest. Photo: Pedro Greig

It’s a strong program, aptly named and thrillingly danced by Bonachela’s exceptional ensemble. As the dancers lined up to take their bow after Anima (it came second), they looked exhausted but exhilarated. The opening night audience responded with a huge ovation, sending waves of energy back to the performers, who took call after call. Some of them have been with Bonachela since he took over the artistic directorship of SDC in late 2008 and others joined only this year, but every last one of them dives into the work with equal passion and daring. It’s wonderful to see how physically diverse the group is and how united in intensity.

Wildebeest premiered in SDC’s new choreography program, New Breed, in 2014. It was by far the most accomplished work on the bill and it’s heartening to see it given greater exposure. Nankivell sees beauty and wonder in the primitive, animalistic self. In the opening solo Bernhard Knauer (on opening night; Juliette Barton shares the role) luxuriates in the discovery of the body’s potential as the dancer evolves from wobbly-limbed newborn to hyper-alert individual.

Impelled by Luke Smiles’s thundery, shivery soundscape, groups form, attack and scatter. Suddenly the mood changes dramatically and mechanistic formality takes over. Warm-bloodedness and wild individuality are replaced by a faceless mass, led by the brilliantly chilly Holly Doyle and Todd Sutherland. Their flashing arms bring to mind a futuristic version of an Indian god whose original purpose has been long forgotten, and the brief outbreak of night-clubby group gyrations has a similar feel of blankly repeated ritual.

Ending back where it began, Wildebeest closes with a brief solo, memorably performed by Janessa Dufty, which suggests a continuous loop of existence, possibly even parallel universes. If one has an optimistic cast of mind it also suggests that no matter how thick the accretions of time and experience, at bottom we are sensual, aware, vulnerable, imaginative and inquisitive beings.

Bonachela made Anima to dance-ready music by Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova, prefacing her Concerto for cello and strings (2008) with the short Insight for string trio (2002). Tabakova’s restless, densely packed rhythms propel and buoy the swiftest movements persuasively. Soloists, duos, quartets and larger groups take the stage in turns, briefly, powerfully and anonymously. They are a muscular choir of angels whose expansiveness and high-flying freedom is in stark contrast to the groundedness of the men at the heart of the work.

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Rafael Bonachela’s Anima. Photo: Pedro Greig

The cello concerto’s middle movement, which Tabakova titles Longing, has a long-breathed, sweet melody that sits above a cloud of strings before darker intimations set in. It invites, and is given, a heartfelt pas de deux that on opening night Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis invested with tenderness and something like emotional caution or unease. There isn’t enough, however, to sustain the nearly nine minutes of music, so the dominant impression of Anima is its pedal-to-the-metal physical exuberance rather than the desired interplay of interior spirit and its exterior manifestation.

The blurry suggestions of dancers’ bodies, designed by Clemens Habicht and projected on to a screen at the back of the stage, are an intriguing, albeit a little too self-effacing, part of the concept. Far less intriguing are Aleisha Jelbart’s costumes for Anima, which essentially make it look as if these spectacular, heroic dancers were sent out in their underwear. Bonachela likes the dancers’ bodies to be attired relatively simply, it would seem, a state Fiona Holley achieved successfully with her earth-toned tops and shorts for Wildebeest.

Longtime Bonachela collaborator Benjamin Cisterne lit both works, rather overdoing the colour washes in Anima. With the arrival of each new shade in the central pas de deux one rather wondered what it meant. In Wildebeest, on the other hand, the connection with movement and score was precise.

SDC has released its program for 2017 and Wildebeest will not be a one-season wonder. In February and March it is danced on a US tour as part of a triple bill (the other works are Bonachela’s Frame of Mind and Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models) and is performed around Australia with Frame of Mind in June, July and August.

Good old New Breed, one must say. Except there is no New Breed scheduled for 2017. It was always clear that generous philanthropy organisation The Balnaves Foundation was supporting New Breed for three years only, and next month’s event is the third (Carriageworks, November 29-December 10). Presumably no new financial backer has been found at this stage to continue the program.

Over the years SDC has found various ways to bring new and under-appreciated choreographers into the fold. The late, lamented Spring Dance festival at the Sydney Opera House, for instance, brought Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic to the attention of a most appreciative public in Sydney in 2012 and Bonachela gave it a mainstage season in 2013.

Let’s hope someone from the 2016 New Breed – participants are SDC dancers Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales, plus Shian Law and Rachel Arianne Ogle – comes up trumps. But of course you can’t guarantee that. It’s why you have to keep on looking out for and giving chances to those who show a spark. Which costs money, and brings us back to arts funding. Don’t get me started.

Untamed ends in Sydney on October 29.

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.