New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 6

The mysteries of dance and dancemaking are great. What drives the need to watch this person closely and not that one? Why does a work speak to something deep within while another is superficially entertaining? How is it that one is engaged intellectually and emotionally with one piece of dance while finding another pleasing enough in the moment but forgotten shortly after?

It is, of course, the job of the critic to analyse these matters and build an argument. It’s important, too, to convey a sense of the occasion so the reader may come away thinking they’d rather like the piece the writer did not rate highly, or would rather remove their own appendix than endure the work so lavishly praised.

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Holly Doyle (foreground) in Creeper by Lauren Langlois. Photo: Pedro Greig

A program such as Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed (or Queensland Ballet’s Synergy, or The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque) bring these thoughts into even greater focus than usual. This is where new work is presented, sometimes by experienced choreographers and often by relative or total neophytes. It’s a given that all pieces are danced spectacularly well by company members. The works may not have much – or anything – in the way of sets but they will be professionally lit and costumed. Nothing will last more than about 25 minutes and some much less. There are always four or sometimes five works on the program, often coming from incredibly different directions. Variety is a given and because the viewer is unlikely to be deeply familiar with any choreographer’s work the element of surprise can be great. You’re not necessarily going to like everything but almost certain to come away satisfied that you got your money’s worth. Which, because New Breed tickets were $35, you most certainly did.

Repertoire building is not the primary goal of these programs – their focus is on giving choreographers an opportunity to develop their craft – but bringing more experienced independent choreographers to a wider audience can be beneficial to both sides. New Breed is where SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela found Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeestand Melanie Lane’s WOOF, which he then put into mainstage seasons. On the development front, Bodytorque is where TAB nurtured Alice Topp, now a resident choreographer, and before her Tim Harbour, ditto. Rising star Jack Lister got his start at QB in its studio presentations, he recently choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s main program which was seen in Birmingham and at Sadlers Wells, and is now transferring to Brisbane’s Australian Dance Collective (formerly Expressions Dance Company) where he will be both dancer and choreographer from next year.

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Chloe Leong in In Walked Bud by Davide Di Giovanni. Photo: Pedro Greig

So what of this year’s New Breed? There are four works, two by SDC company members Davide Di Giovanni and Ariella Casu and the others by Lauren Langlois and Josh Mu, both of whom are old hands in the independent contemporary dance scene.

Di Giovanni’s In Walked Bud, a dance for two women and a man to the music of Thelonius Monk, looked sophisticated and fun. Guy Hastie dressed Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong in to-die-for black unitards with cheeky pink fringing on one leg, Alexander Berlage lit the stage with expanding ovals of light, unlit it with a handful of blackouts and threw shadows with backlighting. Doyle, Leong and Luke Hayward were Hollywood glamorous and were almost enough compensation for a lumpy structure that had audiences at sea about whether the piece had ended or was continuing.

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Sydney Dance Company in Ariella Casu’s Arise for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Casu’s Arise was clearly heartfelt but its territory is well-worn. A group of nine dancers was at first aggressive, frantic, robotic and impassive in tight shiny hoodies (Aleisa Jelbart designed, as she did three of the four New Breed works). When they shed this dark upper garment it was if they were reborn into a state of innocence and unworldliness.

Josh Mu’s Zero, which ended the program, was danced to the energising beat of Huey Benjamin’s electronic score. While it perhaps didn’t fully convey Mu’s theme of humanity teetering on the edge of existence, the large group of 11 dancers made the piece zing from go to whoa and hyperactive Chloe Young, intriguingly hiding much of the time behind a long veil of hair, threw herself into the moment and consumed space and energy as if there were no tomorrow. Emily Seymour’s superbly controlled rotations while lying on the floor were less easy to fit into the picture but were quite magical.

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Sydney Dance Company in Josh Mu’s Zero. Photo: Pedro Greig

Which leaves Creeper, by Lauren Langlois. At 25 minutes her piece for four women was the longest (by a few minutes) of the evening’s works. It was also the only one that to me felt fully formed and realised. Only in Creeper did I feel any curiosity about who these people were and what they felt.

The immediate impression was of a strange, unsettling place and restless, unsettled people. Berlage’s lighting (he worked on all four pieces) at first gave the stage a light green tinge and later a purply wash; eerie or sickly, depending on your interpretation. Jason Wright’s sound design was equally elusive and disorienting. The women – Jesse Scales, Ariella Casu, Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong, all memorable – stood apart from one another although the focus was on Scales, moving slowly as the others moved even more slowly, each apparently with her own thoughts. Staggering steps brought them together, stuttering, ungainly, awkward, even ugly, but affecting. This is what the internal conflict and anguish we usually hide beneath a polite exterior look like.

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Jesse Scales (centre) with Ariella Casu (and Chloe Leong in Creeper. Photo: Pedro Greig

The woman needed one another even as they also took their own paths, looking for – who knows what? It could be consolation in difficult times, the strength of the group, or the basic drive to survive even though the world is a blasted desert. In some ways Creeper could be a companion piece to Antony Hamilton’s unforgettable Keep Everything (2014), in which Langlois performed, brilliantly. There’s the same fractured, extreme physicality and interest in how technology challenges the whole of humanity and our personal interactions with others. That said, Creeper is very much its own work, with much greater emphasis on the possibility of emotional engagement. I could see it again and again, for the way the women huddled together for comfort; that repeated gesture of raising a foot behind them and brushing it with a hand; the phenomenal Scales’s intense upwards gaze that searched the universe; and so much more.

Expressions Dance Company becomes Australian Dance Collective

Brisbane’s Expressions Dance Company has a new name to go with its new leadership. Amy Hollingsworth, who became artistic director of EDC at the beginning of 2019, announced at her 2020 season launch that the 35-year-old contemporary company will be known as Australian Dance Collective.

Hollingsworth is the third artistic director in the company’s history, following Natalie Weir and Maggi Sietsma. The former leaders supported yesterday’s move, with Sietsma saying the company she founded with Abel Valls had “always been a collaborative venture”.  Australian Dance Collective chair Marian Gibney called the change a “natural evolution” for the company. “Amy is a passionate curator, with a clear vision around harnessing shared energies and imaginations to produce thrilling dance works and to nurturing a love of dance in our community.”

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Amy Hollingsworth, artistic director of Australian Dance Collective. Photo: David Kelly

The Expressions board raised the possibility of changing the company’s name when she started, Hollingsworth says. “We knew we wanted a name that was descriptive, not evocative. I feel very strongly that the way we can connect to society and capture the imaginations of many people is to have a really inclusive hive of diverse artistic voices. I believe the strongest kind of leadership is listening to the people you work with and including them in the decision-making.”

At the launch Hollingsworth in Brisbane said Australian Dance Collective was committed to being “collectively extraordinary”. “Working collectively gives us like-minded individuals and visionaries to debate with, ensuring our ideas are robust and that our collaborations crackle with artistic energy. I dream of creating an environment that generates exhilarating dance to capture the imaginations of many.”

“Contemporary dance has to evolve, it has to change and that’s a really, really healthy thing,” Weir says. “I think the new name Australian Dance Collective is beautiful and the idea of being ‘collectively extraordinary’ is a fantastic vision for the future of the company.”

Hollingsworth’s 2020 program starts with a triple bill that will be a permanent part of future programming, except in years when international touring may take precedence. “I have some big things in the pipeline,” she says. The triple bill will feature a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work.

Next year’s choreographers are Jack Lister, Melanie Lane and Hofesh Shechter. Lister has made extremely well-received works for Queensland Ballet, where he was also a dancer. His departure from QB was announced recently. Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, was staged in Birmingham in September and at London’s Sadlers Wells in October. From next year Lister will also dance with Australian Dance Collective. Lane scored a big success with WOOF earlier this year for Sydney Dance Company and will make a new work for Brisbane. Shechter is one of the biggest names in international contemporary dance; his early work Cult – a piece Hollingsworth has danced in – will receive its Australian premiere.

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A promotional image for Australian Dance Collective. Photo: Justin Ridler

Hollingsworth continues the Chinese Australian Dance Exchange Project established by Weir with, Hollingsworth points out, connections made by Sietsma. Next year Australian Dance Collective will work with Shenzhen-based Round House Dance Company. Shenzhen has been a sister city of Brisbane since 1992. Hollingsworth is also deeply committed to the company’s Youth Ensemble, a group of 30 people aged 15 to 18. It will have a work created for it and perform a piece with the main company.

Half of Hollingsworth’s complement of six dancers will be new next year. Jake McLarnon, Bernhard Knauer and Josephine Wiese remain and will be joined by Lister, Marlo Benjamin and former Australian Dance Theatre member Lonii Garnons-Williams.

“I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do,” Hollingsworth says. “I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft. I want us to energise each other.”

Australian Dance Collective’s 2020 season opens with the triple bill Three on April 1 at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.

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.