Complexities of human existence

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, Sydney, July 16

THE accepted wisdom is that dance careers are brutally short and in many – probably most – cases they are. The performers who break that barrier should be cherished. They may not have the effortless flexibility and super-human extensions they once had, but since when did elasticity equal artistry? Indeed, there is much discussion in classical circles these days about the great danger of tricks – endless turns, legs behind ears, gymnastics in the air – trumping emotional engagement, expressiveness, imagination and the use of the body as an infinitely varied instrument of meaning.

In Australia there are few opportunities for older dance artists; certainly no regular ones I can bring to mind, except for the collaborations between sculptor Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists. Performances have taken place at the Art Gallery of NSW and Cockatoo Island, but latterly they have been at Unsworth’s Sydney studio, in which he manages a quite remarkable array of effects. The invited audience sits on hard pews, the stage machinery shudders and groans a bit and there isn’t the seamless transition from scene to scene one sees in the subsidised and commercial sectors, and yet there is an inordinate amount of magic. Imagination, emotional engagement – that’s what you get.

Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest

For The Arrangement Unsworth – he finances these productions entirely – really pushed the boat out, commissioning music from Jonathan Cooper and engaging The Song Company to sing texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Song Company’s long-serving artistic director, Roland Peelman, was at the helm (and the piano).

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning to usher in a series of stage pictures connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. Unsworth paid no attention to the potential limitations of his studio, making alterations and engaging a production team that enabled a woman (soprano Susannah Lawergren) to rise and descend through floor and ceiling; to allow Frankenhaeuser appear to levitate in ghostly fashion; and to have The Song Company singers revolve as they stood like mannequins while Philip assembled a real – i.e., not living – mannequin into a decidedly non-traditional form.

One of the most memorable dance moments came when Harding-Irmer, balancing on a ball, absorbed energy from Frankenhaeuser, whose flickering hands were the very embodiment of electricity. Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser, partners in real life, appeared to be the more connected pair while Barling and Philip were tougher customers, but central to all the movement was a sense of personal history drawn upon. These people had pasts, stories and secrets.

Cooper’s vivid, theatrical music was in expert hands. The Song Company’s Lawergren, Clive Birch (bass), Richard Black (tenor), Mark Donnelly (baritone), Anna Fraser (soprano) and Hannah Fraser (alto) were not only singers of the highest order but game participants in much of the action. Also under Peelman’s direction were the fine musicians Ollie Miller (cello), Lamorna Nightingale (flute) and Jason Noble (clarinet).

Unsworth created a world that was sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, always surprising. It was a privilege to be there.

iTMOi, Les Illuminations

Akram Khan Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 28. Les Illuminations, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Dance Company and Katie Noonan, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, August 28

AKRAM Khan is a choreographer with a hugely inquiring and generous mind. The list of his collaborators is long, stellar and diverse. He’s not a man content to do the same thing over and over with small variations. To celebrate the centenary of The Rite of Spring, Khan didn’t want to add yet another dance work to the extensive list of those who have used Stravinsky’s epoch-altering score. Instead he wanted to “enter Igor’s own thought process and follow its complex and disruptive path”. Thus  iTMOi, a particularly ugly and tricksy title that stands for “in the mind of Igor”.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

But not only does that phrase give a slightly impertinent suggestion of intimacy with the composer, it is misleading in terms of what iTMOi achieves. The piece is broadly another version of The Rite of Spring with different music (three composers plus a tiny snippet of Stravinsky), twice as long and with an altered ending. Ritual and sacrifice are its themes but there is little of the disruption Khan hopes to evoke. He would have to be far more transgressive than he is here to come anywhere near emulating, let alone surpassing, the effect of the bomb Stravinsky threw on that May day in 1913.

There is nothing better in iTMOi than its beginning, in which a preacher figure shouts a text about Abraham and Isaac against a dramatic, roiling soundscape. Bells toll and drums beat while dancers shudder, groan, hiss, whisper and chant in a primal and thrilling display of ecstatic possession. The feel is that of a particularly intense meeting of religious fanatics. Dancers wheel about in stuttering, speedy circles; there are springy elevations from deep plies in second.

The piece then becomes a series of scenes, somewhat unfocused in structure, that alternate between unrestrained physicality and slow-moving tableaux. A woman in a huge white crinoline commands attention; a younger woman, also in white, is covered in ash; a man tries to challenge the unity of the group but fails; another man stands on his head; yet another, semi-naked, prowls the stage, sporting long thin horns. Meaning is elusive, although there is a general sense of pagan wildness. Igor’s mind was clearly a pretty vibey place.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The muscular stamping and circling motifs are reminders of the folk elements in Stravinsky’s score; the slower sections offer arresting imagery but feel over-indulgent and not always full of the resonances Khan appears to be seeking. The work is only 65 minutes in length but is stretched beyond its natural span and ideal shape. It also seems to end twice before it really does, which is rarely effective. I was surprised to see that a dramaturge is among those credited.

The 11 dancers are superb, it goes without saying, and an Akram Khan work is always worth a visit. This one looks spectacular and is performed with brilliance. It’s just not his most coherent.

iTMOi was preceded by a wonderful collaboration between Sydney Dance Company, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and singer Katie Noonan. Why such riches all on one evening? Because the two works are all that is left of the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, canned earlier this year for cost reasons. SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, curated last year’s event and was to have done the same this year. It is a huge loss for the city.

Fortunately Les Illuminations survived the cull. At only 45 minutes it is a lovely jewel that deserves more than the handful of performances it’s being given. For those whose knowledge of Benjamin Britten is confined almost entirely to his operas (that would be me), the two works chosen by Bonachela for this project surprise and delight, as does the dance inspired by them.

The first half is playful and sexy, set to the four-movement Simple Symphony (1933-1934). Dancing on a catwalk set in the centre of the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, Janessa Dufty, Andrew Crawford, Fiona Jopp and Bernard Knauer flirt, tease, sparkle and seduce. Despite the restricted space there is room for a few playful tosses, much intertwining of limbs and lovely partnering in which the women are as supportive as the men. The expressive eye contact and the women’s gorgeous smiles lights up the intimate space.

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

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

In the second half, Les Illuminations (1939), Noonan sings texts by Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who was a byword for dissipation and excess. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are black rather than the cream confections he created for Simple Symphony, and the atmosphere is much darker and erotically charged. The movement is edgier as dancers prowl and slither around one another or enter same-sex pas de deux. Juliette Barton looks coolly dangerous as she holds Charmene Yap in a tight grip; Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper are equally sensuous in their highly charged meeting.

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Noonan had a slightly tentative start at Wednesday’s opening but quickly showed her silvery, agile soprano to be an excellent match for Britten’s songs. Seventeen string players from the SSO were conducted by Roland Peelman in an absolutely luscious performance.

Les Illuminations has its final performances on August 31. iTMOi finishes September 1.