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.

Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

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Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.

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Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

Sydney Dance Company: New Breed

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 30.

What a great night of dance – all of it brand spanking new, performed by some of the best movers on the planet and offered to the public at $35 a ticket. Even when the quality is uneven New Breed, now in its fourth iteration, offers a lot of bang for your buck. This year’s quartet of works is exhilarating.

Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela curates New Breed cannily. He gives choreographic opportunities to some of his own dancers and includes interesting independent Australian choreographers who can benefit from the resources and exposure SDC offers.

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Melanie Lane’s WOOF for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Take Melanie Lane. Her WOOF – the night’s highlight – uses 12 dancers (it was to be 13 but one was injured several weeks ago). She is a highly experienced choreographer who works internationally but rarely with a group of that size.

I have no idea what her title means but never mind. The piece itself is quite clear. The work begins in silence and with an evocation of the past. The company composes itself into tableaus that mimic the formality of Renaissance paintings on classical subjects but not their extravagance. The dancers are dressed simply in flesh tones, leaching the picture of all colour except for one intriguing touch. Their hands are sooty.

The dancers lean against one another or recline gracefully for a few moments and then reform. The entrance of music (the original score is by Clark) encourages a fracturing of the whole into sub-sets, whose dance-floor moves bring them into today’s world. Towards the end of the piece, which runs only 20 tightly packed minutes, an alien, futuristic quality emerges, mashed up with the irresistible image of a messed-up corps de ballet at work.

As Lane’s concern is with the way societies organise themselves there’s little in the way of emotional intimacy. There is, nevertheless, a welcome touch of human messiness as those sooty hands lay themselves on initially pristine costumes and her final image is one of transcendence.

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Petros Treklis’s The Art of Letting Go. Photo: Pedro Greig

SDC dancer Petros Treklis’s The Art of Letting Go comes a close second to WOOF for beauty of composition and he adds a jolt to the heart. Seven dancers are seen as aspects of one mind as Treklis repeats touching motifs of falling, rising, spinning and reaching to the music of Rachmaninov. The movement is often very fast but always splendidly structured and never less than lyrical and deeply felt. A huge success.

Cass Mortimer Eipper and Nelson Earl, also SDC members, collaborated on the fierce duo Bell Jar (which they perform) that has the theme of dancing with one’s demons. To thundery music by Marc Cher-Gibard they fight, grapple and butt heads, both looking sensational.

Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson’s [bio]Curious is a surreal, sensual and witty ode to the environment, here seen as a viable sexual partner. This is nature seen in several ways and quite a different light. The piece is the program’s wild card and a beguiling one. You want intimacy? Here it is in full bloom.

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Nelson Earl and Cass Mortimer Eipper in Bell Jar. Photo: Pedro Greig

It is a little invidious to single out some dancers because everyone looked wonderful on opening, but the hyper-elastic, hyper-kinetic Nelson Earl was, in very different ways, like a man possessed in Bell Jar and [bio]Curious. He holds nothing back. Holly Doyle lit up WOOF, Todd Sutherland was outstanding in The Art of Letting Go, Davide di Giovanni was a commanding presence in [bio]Curious and Chloe Leong was delicious as the embodiment of nature in Robinson’s work, super-seductive and holding the attention even when reclining in sultry fashion among the foliage in a hot house at the back of the stage.

The other choreographers contented themselves with lighting to support their work. Verity Hampton expertly did the honours for all.

Ends December 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on December 4.