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.

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.

Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

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.