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.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 29.

Who knew gloom could come in so many shades? This year’s New Breed program must have tested the ingenuity of Benjamin Cisterne, Sydney Dance Company’s go-to man for lighting design, but he came up trumps, magnificently meeting the challenge of finding four different ways of illuminating darkness.

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What You See, choreographed by Jesse Scales. Photo: Pedro Greig

The program is curated – by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela – to present emerging choreographers or those who should be seen more widely. This year they are SDC dancers Jesse Scales and Richard Cilli and independent artists Rachel Arianne Ogle (from Perth) and Shian Law (from Melbourne), all of whom have made sombre works that don’t exactly add up to a night of contrasts.

Ogle’s Of Dust is made to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley that evokes cosmic storms in endless space. Order and disorder are expressed in counter-balance, movements in canon or succession, complex swirling circles and lines that sweep, falter, fragment and coalesce. It is mesmerising and lovely to watch but rather long for its one idea: that we are made of stardust and to dust we will return.

Law’s Epic Theatre starts in the foyer with two men grappling. Inside the auditorium we are initially kept from our seats by a long line of people with linked arms, although some of the more bolshie break through to sit down.

Law is interested in blurring the lines between audience and performer and, once we are seated, transfers that idea to the stage by mixing non-dancers and dancers. People fight, they recline like statues, they lift others as if they were mannequins and they walk. They walk a lot, to Marco Cher-Gibard’s trance-inducing new score (Cher-Gibard performed lived) and in Cisterne’s gauzy, hazy light.

There is, Law says at the end, “one irreducible fact” about theatre: one group of people is looking at another. This is true, but as with Ogle’s piece it would be good to have more than meets the eye. Both are sophisticated dance-makers who failed, at least with this viewer, to make an intellectual or emotional connection of any substance. Great-looking pieces though.

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Of Dust, choreographed by Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cilli’s Hinterland stitches together elements that unfortunately don’t add up to a coherent whole. The overlong beginning looks like something that should have stayed in the rehearsal room as dancers vocalise to the movements of others. Later, some chitchat about icebergs and the film Titanic is simplistic and too poorly projected to offer insights into Cilli’s idea of “the tension between outward appearance and the vast inner landscape”. The slow motion entwining of nine bodies into an undifferentiated mass at one point is, however, enticing.

Scales’s What You See is danced to Max Richter music, well chosen. The modestly scaled piece for two men and a woman, each in their own world of emotional anguish, is on a well-worn theme but Scales has an appealing delicacy of touch and feeling that suggests she could and should expand her horizons.

It goes without saying that the SDC dancers are tremendous, one and all, in each of the works.

The choreographers chosen for New Breed get top-of-the-line support. They make their work on a bunch of the finest dance bodies in the country, are seen at one of the country’s most prestigious performing arts addresses and are given a generous season of nine performances. That last point is important. There seems to be a good appetite for new work presented in the right place at the right price – the top Carriageworks ticket price is just $35. It’s also excellent to note that The Balnaves Foundation, a supporter of New Breed for the past three years, is coming back for a further three.

Ends December 10.

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.

Triptych

Sydney Dance Company with ACO2 and Katie Noonan. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, September 29.

BENJAMIN Britten was in his 20s when he wrote the three works to which Rafael Bonachela responds so ardently in Triptych. Innocence, desire, joy, playfulness and sensuality all have their role in the music and the evocation of the bloom and juice of youth is captivating.

Bonachela has revived two dances from 2013 and newly created a third for an evening in which movement and music have a lively – and, it’s wonderful to say, live – conversation. Even better, the 16 string players from ACO2 are not confined to a pit but sit on a platform at the rear of the stage, generating warmth and visceral connection, advantages we humans still have over machines in an age where much – most – contemporary dance is performed to recorded music. Well, there is one drawback: sometimes the eye is drawn inexorably over the heads of dancers to a musician making a particularly arresting contribution. Thomas Gould, directing from the violin, has form with Britten and he has the group – the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s youth ensemble – playing superbly.

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

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

The dancers responded eagerly, as has Bonachela. In his hands Sydney Dance Company never looks less than elegant, sleek, powerful, sophisticated, glamorous and any other adjective you might think of in this neck of the woods. Those qualities make the company always highly watchable but the effect can be emotionally cool, a situation amplified, if you will forgive the little wordplay, when the music is coming from speakers. One understands why the reliance on recording – it’s the economy, stupid. So we must be very grateful for the times when finances allow a program such as Triptych.

Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations (performed together as Les Illuminations) were a big success when first seen at the Sydney Opera House two years ago. They were supposed to have been part of the Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, of which Bonachela was artistic director, but the Opera House pulled the plug on the four-year-old event “for financial reasons”. It seemed there wasn’t enough audience appetite for a dance festival of this kind in Sydney.

Les Illuminations survived to be seen for handful of performances in the Studio at the Opera House and was also performed in Brisbane last year, but that was for one night only. You couldn’t say Les illuminations has been over-exposed. Now, in company with Variation 10, also to music by Britten, the dances will be seen much more widely.

The four light-hearted movements of Simple Symphony (1933-34) propel a series of duos and a quarter that suggest the larks of lovers tumbling about on a summer’s afternoon. The mood is light, bright and optimistic. Janessa Dufty with Bernhard Knauer and Fiona Jopp with Todd Sutherland caught the sunny nature of the music and were sweetly uncomplicated in their relationships, twirling each other about with sparkling eyes, fleet feet and much give and take. Jopp supported Sutherland as he extended his leg high to the side while on demi-pointe, a gorgeous, generous unfolding of the body; Dufty used Knauer’s horizontal body as a steadying point for a cheerful cartwheel; every now and again a dancer would lightly touch their partner’s face. Just lovely.

Simple Symphony was followed immediately, as in 2013, with the darker intimations of the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Once again soprano Katie Noonan was the divinely silky, agile interpreter of texts by bad-boy French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud as two rather more dangerous couples took the field. Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap with Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli were the opening-night protagonists, dressed in slinky black garments that had a touch of kink about them. Eroticism rather than flirtation is the game. Barton in particular was dramatic and dangerous but all four had quite an edge as they prowled and entwined. There’s was real frisson when they swapped partners, ending up with their own sex. The women were spiky and tough while the men were more tender, a salute to the orientation of poet and composer.

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s new full-company piece, Variation 10, takes its cue from qualities Britten saw in his composition teacher Frank Bridge or felt for him, including charm, humour, vitality, sympathy and reverence. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) is an open-hearted tribute to the man who, as author and conductor Paul Kildea writes, taught Britten “how to live and think as an artist”. Bonachela takes a fairly literal approach. Knees are lifted comically high in Aria Italiana (humour) and Chant (reverence) is a mournful solo given gravitas on opening night by Cilli. Funeral March (sympathy) not surprisingly has a sombre feel but was energised with fierce physicality.

Jesse Scales and David Mack were outstanding in Funeral March, answering the throbbing beats from the plucked double bass with passionate intensity. But everywhere you looked there were dancers giving individual shading and detail to Bonachela’s high-octane choreography. Bonachela has a way with partnering that gives women equal strength and authority with men, a desirable state not always seen in dance and a great credit to him.

It’s a shame Toni Maticevski’s costumes for Variation 10 don’t flatter the men but you can’t have everything. His earlier work for Simple Symphony and Les illuminations is just right.

Triptych ends in Sydney on October 10. It will be seen in Germany at Theatre im Pfalzbau, Festpiele Ludwigshafen, on November 28 and 29, featuring the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In Melbourne on October 25 Les Illuminations, featuring Taryn Fiebig, will be performed with Variation 10 and Project Rameau, accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for a program titled Illuminated. Illuminated will then be performed in Hong Kong on November 13 and 14.

Variation 10 will be performed with 2 One Another at Stadtheater Fürth, Germany, November 18-22.

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.