New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 29.

Who knew gloom could come in so many shades? This year’s New Breed program must have tested the ingenuity of Benjamin Cisterne, Sydney Dance Company’s go-to man for lighting design, but he came up trumps, magnificently meeting the challenge of finding four different ways of illuminating darkness.

nb2016_whatyousee_161128_133_hires_bypedrogreig

What You See, choreographed by Jesse Scales. Photo: Pedro Greig

The program is curated – by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela – to present emerging choreographers or those who should be seen more widely. This year they are SDC dancers Jesse Scales and Richard Cilli and independent artists Rachel Arianne Ogle (from Perth) and Shian Law (from Melbourne), all of whom have made sombre works that don’t exactly add up to a night of contrasts.

Ogle’s Of Dust is made to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley that evokes cosmic storms in endless space. Order and disorder are expressed in counter-balance, movements in canon or succession, complex swirling circles and lines that sweep, falter, fragment and coalesce. It is mesmerising and lovely to watch but rather long for its one idea: that we are made of stardust and to dust we will return.

Law’s Epic Theatre starts in the foyer with two men grappling. Inside the auditorium we are initially kept from our seats by a long line of people with linked arms, although some of the more bolshie break through to sit down.

Law is interested in blurring the lines between audience and performer and, once we are seated, transfers that idea to the stage by mixing non-dancers and dancers. People fight, they recline like statues, they lift others as if they were mannequins and they walk. They walk a lot, to Marco Cher-Gibard’s trance-inducing new score (Cher-Gibard performed lived) and in Cisterne’s gauzy, hazy light.

There is, Law says at the end, “one irreducible fact” about theatre: one group of people is looking at another. This is true, but as with Ogle’s piece it would be good to have more than meets the eye. Both are sophisticated dance-makers who failed, at least with this viewer, to make an intellectual or emotional connection of any substance. Great-looking pieces though.

nb2016_ofdust_161128_079_hires_bypedrogreig

Of Dust, choreographed by Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cilli’s Hinterland stitches together elements that unfortunately don’t add up to a coherent whole. The overlong beginning looks like something that should have stayed in the rehearsal room as dancers vocalise to the movements of others. Later, some chitchat about icebergs and the film Titanic is simplistic and too poorly projected to offer insights into Cilli’s idea of “the tension between outward appearance and the vast inner landscape”. The slow motion entwining of nine bodies into an undifferentiated mass at one point is, however, enticing.

Scales’s What You See is danced to Max Richter music, well chosen. The modestly scaled piece for two men and a woman, each in their own world of emotional anguish, is on a well-worn theme but Scales has an appealing delicacy of touch and feeling that suggests she could and should expand her horizons.

It goes without saying that the SDC dancers are tremendous, one and all, in each of the works.

The choreographers chosen for New Breed get top-of-the-line support. They make their work on a bunch of the finest dance bodies in the country, are seen at one of the country’s most prestigious performing arts addresses and are given a generous season of nine performances. That last point is important. There seems to be a good appetite for new work presented in the right place at the right price – the top Carriageworks ticket price is just $35. It’s also excellent to note that The Balnaves Foundation, a supporter of New Breed for the past three years, is coming back for a further three.

Ends December 10.

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.

wildebeest_161017_468_hires_bypedrogreig

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.

anima_161017_609_hires_bypedrogreig

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.