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.

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.

School Dance, The Blind Date Project, The Peony Pavilion, The Secret River, Sydney Festival

School Dance, Sydney Theatre Company presents the Windmill Theatre production in association with the Sydney Festival. Also Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, February 7-9; Melbourne Arts Centre, April 10-20; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 31-August 3

The Blind Date Project, Ride on Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Peony Pavilion, Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival. Also Perth International Arts Festival, February 25-March 2

AT the performance of School Dance that I attended – a weekday matinee early in the run – there were quite a few empty seats. Bad call on the part of theatre-lovers, because now Sydney Theatre Company’s website is noting very limited availability for the remaining performances. School Dance acknowledges and yes, celebrates teenage male awkwardness, longing and resilience in a piece that is acutely observed, sweet and funny, and uplifting without losing its honesty. Take three self-confessed losers, put them in a tacky school hall, throw in obstacles in the form of a hilariously huge bully and an unattainable girl, stir in some fantasy and off we go. (Not to forget some great 1980s music. It is worth the price of admission alone for the bike ride – leg-powered, not some fancy motorbike – to the Bonnie Tyler anthem Holding Out for a Hero.) Windmill Theatre had success with this last year in its home base of Adelaide so the show is beautifully worked in, featuring the multitudinous talents of Matthew Whittet (writer and actor), Jonathon Oxlade (designer and actor), Luke Smiles (composer and actor) and Amber McMahon (brilliant and indefatigable as all the female characters). Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is delicious and Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers brings it all home wittily and movingly.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As I left the theatre I heard a man of mature years exclaim that this was the best show he’d ever seen, and there was in his voice the shiny, excited quality of revelation. It’s good to see School Dance is off to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane; early booking is clearly indicated.

The Blind Date Project could probably have run and run in terms of audience demand, although perhaps not in terms of the demand on its performers. Bojana Novakovic is Ana, a woman waiting at a bar for a blind date to turn up. The person who turns up – and it may not necessarily be a man – is different at each performance, and the identity of the actor who will play the blind date is unknown to Novakovic until they arrive bearing a bunch of flowers. The encounter is improvised, albeit with some direction received via mobile phone. Novakovic also clearly has some anchor points she uses. Still, it’s a greatly enjoyable highwire act and one that can take many different paths. The night I saw The Blind Date Project (a late-night show), Charlie Garber arrived fresh from playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Belvoir, and he could not have been more darling. I gather not all dates ended quite as well for Ana.

I was delighted to see The Peony Pavilion having (boast, boast) seen the 18-hour full version of this 16th century opera at the 2000 Perth festival. Here it was the merest sliver at 2 ½ hours, but the central love story remained, and it was an opportunity to absorb and savour a style of singing, performance and orchestral playing entirely different from that of Western opera. Kunqu is highly stylised and formal in gesture, but not above throwing in some dazzling acrobatics and other popular entertainment forms. There was a lot lost in this production due to the extreme truncation of the piece, although the cuts weren’t a sop to Western audiences. Only a few of The Peony Pavilion’s 55 scenes are usually performed these days so it was great good fortune to have seen the full work. The Sydney Festival of 1999 was originally to have hosted The Peony Pavilion in its full pomp but visa difficulties delayed the production, and the following year Perth alone took it in Australia.

I imagine there won’t be another chance to see the entire Peony Pavilion again, but then I used to say that about Einstein on the Beach, a mere stripling of an opera that clocks in at about 4 ½ hours, which Melbourne hosted in 1992. And guess what’s coming back to Melbourne from July 31?

The Secret River confronts the fundamental torment on which modern Australia was founded. People were cut off from everything they knew and transported to the other side of the world to make the best, or worst, of it. They may as well have been in outer space given their chances of successful return, and in trying to make a new kind of home they took what wasn’t theirs. People sent here for what may have been petty thieving became government-sanctioned thieves on a grand scale. It was a brutal business.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, directed by Neil Armfield with Bangarra’s Stephen Page as his associate, is simultaneously monumental in scale and incredibly intimate. The stage, shared by the newcomers and the traditional owners, becomes the ground on which the idea of home, place and identity is argued and fought over. Well, we know how it turned out for the indigenous people, but that in no way diminishes the dramatic impetus nor the anguish.

We can never lose sight of what all this will mean for modern Australian history, but The Secret River tells the story through the eyes of just a handful of people, and therefore in an intensely human way. The story ebbs and flows between the two groups, an unstoppable tragedy in the making as Thames boatman William Thornhill sees his patch of land on the Hawkesbury as the path to reinvention.

STC says Secret River tickets are also scarce – a good start to the year for Andrew Upton, now flying solo as artistic director – so perhaps a trip to the Perth International Arts Festival is indicated for the very keen. I’m looking forward to the first few days of the Perth event, including, of course, the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson – a very eye-catching Perth exclusive.