Review By Lisa Lanzi
The Sydney Dance Company is back in Adelaide after quite an absence with their touring triple bill, Ascent. After the first work, SDC’s Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela donned a microphone to introduce himself and the presentation, and give the crew time to facilitate a demanding scene change behind the curtain. Speaking warmly and with reverence for his company and their work, Bonachela conveyed his wish to begin 2023 ‘on a high’ (hence the title Ascent) and to program a season that would lift our spirits out of the doldrums brought on by the last few pandemic-focussed years. The evening certainly elicited some polemic views from audience members I spoke to, as well as a wide, surprising array of styles, music, and visuals. As always, the SDC dancers were the focus with their impeccable technical ability, astounding athleticism and stage presence.
First on the program was Bonachela’s I Am-ness. With only four dancers on a bare stage of black tarkett and thick white boundary lines at sides and upstage, the work is a lyrical and sinuous example of this artist’s choreography. Accompaniment was a recording of Vientuļais eņģelis (Lonely Angel) by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks with keening strings and a meditative air. Bonachela describes his work as “a momentary constellation of feelings, thoughts, and sensations”. The dancers meet and part in mostly graceful partner work with the occasional drop to the floor like a moment of despair, followed by a reach up and out, or another dancer cradling or supporting. They retreat from each other and return to the group executing partner lifts that are in turn technical or casual. The movements cover the stage in various twisting directions and floor patterns, all lit atmospherically by Damien Cooper through a lingering haze effect. There was an immediacy to the work and undoubtedly a connection to the sense of existential pain implicit in the music and movement; a beautiful moment of dancerly, contemporary choreography and a beautiful response to the music.
The work of Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell, delivering her first ever Australian commission, was cumbersomely titled The Shell, A Ghost, The Host and the Lyrebird, and indeed, the call of the Lyrebird was heard throughout the sound score. The staging for this was complex with ropes and various fabrics suspended from above which the dancers manipulated throughout, sometimes astonishing us with the way they negotiated the tangles. The work began before the curtain was raised and continued as the curtain lowered, abandoning these odd characters within their own, odd world, set apart from the usual reality, whatever that may mean to us as individuals.
Some groupings brought to mind Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa, the performers struggling with unknown forces buffeting both them and the swathes of fabric. Variously, the dancers were manipulating the ropes as they raised, lowered, and swung the array of fabric. They also used the ropes to bear their own weight and launch themselves through space. The fabric did resemble sails at times, a set of dancing characters in their own right, creating a second, possibly attention-grabbing dimension of aerial movement and drama. Most of the choreography was idiosyncratic and only a few times was the group brought together in tableaux or unison. A number of oddly unrelated choreographic sequences might occur simultaneously, including a somewhat robotic duet to finish which may possibly have been inspired by the movement of birds. Mascarell wanted an all Australian creative team beside her so Nick Wales contributed the remarkable sound score made with some of his long-time collaborators, Bree van Reyk, Veronique Serret and Jason Noble. The whimsical design was by Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin and both sound, setting and costumes was more affecting than the choreography.
After interval was the revival of Antony Hamilton’s 2018 Helpmann Award winning work Forever & Ever. Hamilton has said the piece is a homage to pop culture and fashion and the complex costume design certainly attests to that. The setting is visually stark and alienating, a simple white box allowing the striking evolution of the costuming by Paula Levis to star. Ben Cisterne’s lighting is also stark but interspersed with neon pops and flashes of colour, blackout, and house lights flicking on then off. Handheld laser pin lights also make an appearance transporting us with a ‘rave’ sensibility. The score is by Hamilton’s brother and founder of The Presets, Julian Hamilton. The wall of sound grows and pulses in relentless fashion as the dancers work the rhythmic choreography, a mix of contemporary and commercial hip hop inspired movement, mesmerizing in its simplicity, repetition, unison, and energy. The title of the work could easily refer to the never-ending, pounding electronic soundscape.
There are many visual and theatrical moments in Forever & Ever that kindle ideas of fashion runways, alternative worship (the cloaked processional figures are impressive), and a magnificently ritualistic costume removal. Again, the dancers’ commitment to the fast-paced work makes it shine, and that all sixteen company members end up on stage adds impact.
The triple bill is touring widely across Australia and represents an intriguing mix of choreography and theatricality. Not all of it will please everyone but this company of extraordinary performers should be seen.