New short films about dance-makers

Ghenoa Gela won the biennial Keir Choreographic Award in 2016 with a work infused with her Torres Strait Islander heritage while posing resonant questions about meanings inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea also won the people’s vote – a result that didn’t surprise at all. Gela’s work was much more emotionally engaging than the others in the race; more human, more interesting, more inviting.

More recently she’s been working with Broome-based company Marrugeku on a new project and this month was involved in two works at the Sydney Festival, a solo show titled My Urrwai at Belvoir and a Force Majeure premiere You Animal, You at Carriageworks, in which she was a warm, engaging figure.

Ghenoa Gela jpeg

The Keir Award commissions dance works specifically for the competition. Among its goals is the challenging of “conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society”. Which makes Gela (above) a perfect subject for one of a quintet of short portraits of Australian contemporary dance-makers made by the ABC and available now on ABC iview under the collective title The Movement.

The documentaries, from the hands of producer and director Kate Blackmore, are very brief – five minutes or less each – but as a group show that diversity in dance isn’t impossible, even if there is still a long road to travel. Here are trail-blazers consciously seeking to broaden the Australian public’s view of dance subject-matter, dance bodies and dance as a political tool.

Blackmore’s films are crafted as beautiful objects in themselves while giving a clear-eyed picture of each dancer-maker’s perspective. Gela, for instance, grew up in Townsville, Queensland, in a Torres Strait Islander family. She learned her family’s dances when she was young and her “ticket out of Rocky” was a chance to go to NAISDA (The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Skills Development Association). She knows exactly what she wants: to honour her Torres Strait heritage and show its distinctive qualities, and to be a beacon in independent dance for “more little black faces”. She’s wonderful.

Other dance-makers featured are elegant former Sydney Dance Company member Thomas Bradley; Bhenji Ra, “mother” of a Western Sydney-based vogue house; and Natalie Abbott, a young woman who challenges the exclusion of older bodies in dance.

I was particularly taken with Amrita Hepi, who describes the body as inherently political and is interested in the possibility of dancer as a way of transcending race and class. She also notes that the Antipodes are usually described as being at the end of the world. She sees Australia and the Pacific as the centre of her life and practice. Brava.

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.

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.

De Novo

Sydney Dance Company. Choreography by Rafael Bonachela, Alexander Ekman and Larissa McGowan.

IF Alexander Ekman is true to his program note he won’t read this review, or any other. It’s a shame, because I’d like to let him know how much I enjoyed Cacti. Perhaps someone at Sydney Dance Company will pass the word on, but then perhaps he doesn’t care. Cacti is, after all, a dance work sending up critics and what Ekman sees as judgmental intellectualising and pretentious dribbling on about meaning. In his half-hour romp Ekman puts a cactus up the critical fundament in quite an extensive fashion – which may mean he really does care, in which case I might point out that cacti thrive in arid climes, and that Ekman did tell The Australian recently he thinks there’s a lot of contemporary dance that’s too self-absorbed.

But enough of this theorising. Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical. The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps, at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. Later they will strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most glamorous thing in the world to do. There’s lots more besides, but this is a piece to see rather than read about. The 16 dancers are adorable, there’s a glamorous string quartet that plays some of the score live and there’s a dead cat.

Larissa McGowan showed last year in Sydney’s Spring Dance festival (curated by Rafael Bonachela) that she, too, can cause mayhem in the theatre and it was a great delight to see her short work Fanatic given a larger forum. It’s a riotous homage to and send-up of the Alien and Predator films and fans of the genre. Natalie Allen, Thomas Bradley and Chris Aubrey deliver their roles with gusto (there is also a second cast).

De Novo opens with Bonachela’s Emergence, a work in which equal power lies with the music of Sarah Blasko and Nick Wales, the terrific costumes from Dion Lee in his first dance outing, Benjamin Cisterne’s super-sleek stage and lighting design and Bonachela’s dancers. You’ll note I say the dancers rather than the dance itself. The movement language fits these gorgeous people like a glove but for frequent Bonachela-watchers Emergence has no surprises. Bonachela has, however, an inexhaustible gift and appetite for collaboration with intriguing artists from other disciplines. This may be his strongest suit.

De Novo ends on March 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on March 4.