Bonachela/Obarzanek, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, November 2

What better way to mark a milestone birthday than by getting some of the old gang back together again? Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50, choreographed for Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary program, returned to the stage some of SDC’s most memorable artists, among them Bradley Chatfield, Wakako Asano, Sheree da Costa and Lea Francis. It was a graceful way of paying tribute to earlier days, as was a short film that preceded the Bonachela/Obarzanek double bill.

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Jesse Scales and Sheree da Costa in Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. Photo: Don Arnold

The film reminded the audience of the dramatic, theatrical style of former artistic director Graeme Murphy, who with Janet Vernon led SDC for an astonishing 31 years. There were snippets from Poppy, Some Rooms, Synergy with Synergy, Berlin, Tivoli and Grand, among others. The film also showed the very different approach to contemporary dance of current artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who this year celebrates 10 years with the company. He was represented by We Unfold, Raw Models, 2 One Another, Nude Live, ab [intra] and more.

Murphy and Bonachela may have little in common as choreographers but they’ve put heart and soul into the company. That it is still a potent force in Australian and international dance is remarkable. “Graeme’s influence can’t be overstated,” Bonachela told the audience before the performance, noting the “beautiful coincidence” of its being Murphy’s birthday on opening night. (Murphy is now 69 but far from retired, continuing his work as an opera director. A new ballet, The Happy Prince, is part of The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season.)

Obarzanek, himself a former dancer with SDC, chose 10 alumni to take part in Us 50, and they were not there simply to bask in the glory of once having been a star. Some of them won’t see 60 again but they were there to dance and dance they did, holding their own glowingly alongside SDC’s current ensemble of young ‘uns.

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Wakako Asano (front) in Us 50. Photo: Pedro Greig

Among much else in Us 50 Obarzanek explored how movement looks on older bodies versus younger ones, how dance is passed from one person to another, the fascination of two people working as one and the power of a large group. The piece looked deceptively simple but ebbed and flowed to Chris Clark’s propulsive score with a great deal of subtlety and a deep vein of emotion.

At one point Chatfield was left alone on stage as others melted away. He walked a little, as if trying out some ideas. Then he was joined by a few others, then more who watched Chatfield closely. Pedestrian movement morphed into dance and alumna Kathryn Dunn broke away to enjoy the freedom of being, well, one of the most glamorous dancers SDC has produced. Other cherishable moments: Stefan Karlsson (alumnus) and Emily Seymour (current member) shimmying away to one side as the pack moved on; da Costa and young Jesse Scales with their heads on one another’s shoulders; the current SDC dancers forming what looked like a protective huddle around the older dancers (the others were Bill Pengelly, Kip Gamblin, Nina Veretennikova and Linda Ridgeway Gamblin). There was a moment for everyone, with Asano looking particularly radiant. She spent 17 years with SDC and along with Vernon was one of Murphy’s great muses. It was so touching to see her again.

Ten alumni and 15 SDC dancers added up to 25. Making up the 50 was a group of untrained, unrehearsed non-dancers, drawn from the audience anew each evening. They represented the part in SDC’s history played by those who only sit and watch. (On opening night as a special treat the unrehearsed group included another 10 former dancers, including Ross Philip and Tracey Carrodus. Ah the memories!)

If Obarzanek’s concept sounded iffy, it was utter bliss in practice. The untrained, who rose from their seats part-way through Us 50 to go onstage, were not asked for anything outside of their capabilities. Guided via earpieces by assistant choreographer and SDC’s new rehearsal associate Charmene Yap – she will be much missed from the stage – the citizen-dancers’ faces shone as they mingled with the professionals.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths. Photo: Don Arnold

A revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths opened the evening. First seen in 2010, it takes on a different complexion in this new context. A series of meditations on different aspects of breath, including the first and the last, it now conjures thoughts of the evanescence of a dance career. It was danced thrillingly at the opening and put the spotlight on some of Bonachela’s newer recruits, particularly Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleoris in the work’s central duet. Longstanding company member Juliette Barton has returned from maternity leave in even more striking form than before, if that were possible.

The evening’s laurels, though, went to the glorious SDC alumni who brought back so many memories and the untrained civilian bodies who proved that yes, anyone can dance.

Ends November 9.

François Chaignaud, Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, Sydney, September 30; Departures, Ken Unsworth Studio, Sydney, October 1.

In the recent exhibition of dance and the moving image 24 Frames per Second, staged beautifully and expansively at Sydney’s Carriageworks, I kept returning to one work. It was François Chaignaud’s The Sweetest Choice, a suite of five films, each eight or nine minutes in length. As I wrote then, “The setting is California’s Death Valley, the unaccompanied song is a baroque aria by Purcell O solitude, my sweetest choice! and the dance is described as ‘precarious’. The voice is fragile, the body is almost naked except for a shamanistic decoration of foliage and the choreography is elusive but the effect is mesmerising.”

Chaignaud is in Sydney briefly with Dumy Moyi, an intimate 35-minute work performed with a small audience seated on three sides in a long rectangle in one of Carriageworks’ wonderful spaces. I described Carriageworks in my 24 Frames piece as Sydney’s other great secular cathedral (the first, of course, is the Sydney Opera House): the soaring ceilings, open performance and gathering areas, little side theatres that feel like chapels and the exposed industrial materials from which it is built give the monumental effect of a centuries-old place of worship.

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Francois Chaignaud in Dumi Moyi. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Carriageworks is therefore a highly sympathetic setting for Dumy Moyi, a piece of elusive meaning but richly perfumed. Chaignaud appears in fantastical garments, if such a prosaic word can be attached to the feathered, fringed, sequined, beaded, woven and hooped array of decorations he wears around the near-naked body we can see quite clearly. His eyes are heavily laden with glitter and his fingernails long, drawing attention to his gaze and the fluid quality of his hand movements.

The adornments catch the light as Chaignaud prowls, poses and crouches and jumps, creating a mini aurora borealis around his body. As he moves he sings songs in original languages from Ukraine, Russia, Spain and England using a variety of voices. The response of the viewer – there are only 40 spaces for each performance – will inevitably be entirely personal. Chaignaud may be seen as paying homage to ancient indigenous ceremonies, or as a visitor from another planet, or a particularly inventive drag queen or all these things and more simultaneously.

I loved the extravagance of the layers of costume he wears and discards, making his body more visible and more vulnerable. We all wear costumes to present an image to the world, one which may or may not be accurate. Dumy Moyi, by the way, is translated as “my thoughts”.

The next evening I was lucky enough to be invited to artist Ken Unsworth’s Sydney studio for his annual collaboration with Australian Dance Artists, a collective of mature dancers. They also work outside the mainstream and give performances that live long in the memory. I’ve written about them before here. The short story is this (I crib from myself): “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.”

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

This year’s work is Departures, a piece that ruminates on time, love and death. Unsworth has again commissioned composer Jonathan Cooper to write a score (and it is a keeper), it is played live by members of the Australian Piano Quartet and augmented with harp and a second violin, the performance also features two singers, and there is a set containing many sculptural wonders. They include two huge structures, one with a central moving spiral staircase, that the dancers move around, within and up. Departures also has a startling coup de théâtre that involves Unsworth painting on a big paper screen, and it begins with moving spheres that evoke the skies and the passing of the ages.

So, a big production for a small space. Unsworth seems to allow himself few limits. At one point Frankenhaeuser delicately traverses a vertiginous slope (and it is really steep) while others pop their heads through little doors. The surreal is never far away. Imagine, if you will, Clive Birch singing (Unsworth is the librettist for a long and very lovely song) for what seems like five minutes or more while suspended upside down, and the other singer, young Rioghnach Wegrecka, radiant as she steps from one brilliantly coloured chair to another.

The piece starts with the dancers pummelling and manhandling Unsworth – he really doesn’t spare himself – in a emphatic and rather pragmatic image of the artist being tossed away. But the final image is, typically, one of transcendence.

It’s actually rather unkind to keep going on about it. Departures can be seen by invitation only. But it’s a salutary reminder that dance doesn’t belong only to the young and of Unsworth’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and imagination.

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, has performances today, October 2, at 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm and tomorrow at 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm.

Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who 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 of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

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.