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.

Let’s get physical

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company. Sydney Theatre, October 8.

IT’S hard to know where to begin with Andonis Foniadakis’s fantastical Parenthesis, a piece that turns the dial up to 11 and then some. Perhaps praise for Sydney Dance Company’s ferociously committed dancers should come first. They are a super-talented and game bunch who can do anything Foniadakis throws at them, which is quite a lot in a fast-flowing 30 minutes. If the choreographer were a five-year-old you’d be inclined to think he’d over-dosed on the red cordial.

The speed and physical virtuosity are undeniably exhilarating and Foniadakis is not without wit as the dancers swagger on and off like self-regarding hip-hop stars, undulate like seaweed or sway in lines like a Busby Berkeley chorus line on the Peruvian marching powder. The images keep piling up. Benjamin Cisterne’s gloomily lit setting is a curtain of floaty fringes that evokes the sea bed, Tassos Sofroniou’s costumes for the women combine cheerleader sass with hints of ancient Rome and the emergence of two dancers in body-hugging skin tones brings to mind Adam and Eve. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Gladiator meets Gold Diggers of 1933 in a raunchy Garden of Eden – it’s quite a mind trip.

Andonis Foniadakis's Parenthesis. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Andonis Foniadakis’s Parenthesis. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Parenthesis has nothing new to offer on the subject of human interaction, which Foniadakis professes to be his subject. Yes, there are groups interacting vigorously and couples intertwining, but one expects that in dance. Something else one sees a lot of these days is the extreme manipulation of women by men and Foniadakis unfortunately doesn’t resist the urge. His image-making in this respect certainly gave me pause for thought amongst all the frantic activity.

It was wonderful, therefore, to see how Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela negotiates partnering in his new work, Scattered Rhymes, which opens the evening. It’s a classical-looking piece with its alternation of ensemble and pas de deux in six movements, expressed via luscious, expansive movement and a strong sense of the value of the group, even when fractured. There is a particularly lovely duet for Janessa Dufty and Fiona Jopp with strong, close partnering and I was sorry that the intense third duet, for Thomas Bradley and newcomer Petros Treklis, was not longer.

Bonachela’s dancers may be scattered at times and they may be dressed identically, but they are individuals, not molecules to be tossed about in the maelstrom.

Fiona Jopp and Janessa Dufty in Scattered Rhymes. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Fiona Jopp and Janessa Dufty in Scattered Rhymes. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Both pieces featured new commissioned scores, Bonachela’s from Nick Wales and Tarik O’Regan and Foniadakis’s from Julien Tarride. The Wales-O’Regan score alternates, as does the dance, between idioms. It uses fragments of 14th century text and 21st-century electronica in rich juxtaposition. There is text in Tarride’s score too, but of a particularly banal kind, presumably intentionally. I do hope so. His punchy soundscape, however, keeps the show racing along until a slow fade at the end, in which Foniadakis indulges himself in an image that may have been meant to look ecstatic but radiated all the charisma of soft porn.

Parenthesis is, obviously, wildly entertaining. It’s also a bit ridiculous. I would have preferred to see Scattered Rhymes follow it as a palate-cleanser, but Bonachela is a gentleman and always cedes pride of place to his guests. He’s also smart. Judging by the audience response at the opening-night performance Parenthesis is a big hit.

I was introduced to Foniadakis’s work at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2009 when his Selon Desir (2004) was danced on a mixed bill by Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve. It suffered from being on the same program as Loin, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – an infinitely more interesting choreographer in my opinion – but looking back at my review I am also reminded that it wasn’t just that I greatly preferred Loin, but that I really, really disliked Selon Desir, which I thought incoherent and tedious. Parenthesis is a more interesting piece but it is essentially sensationalist; it lives vibrantly and sometimes vulgarly in the moment but leaves little trace.

Louder Than Words ends on October 18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 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.