Review: IMPERMANENCE at the Festival Theatre

Review By Lisa Lanzi


A delightful aspect of the 2021Adelaide Festival is the opportunity for the Directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, and/or the artists themselves, to address the audience prior to many performances. Thus the audience were able to hear Rafael Bonachela speak about his inspiration for Impermanence and its evolution as a work. Close to twelve months ago, the Sydney Dance Company were in technical rehearsal for the original iteration of Impermanence but a matter of days before opening night the season was cancelled due to Covid 19 restrictions. Since then, the choreography and original score have been expanded to a full-length (65 minute) work.


Experiencing the energy of the Australian String Quartet playing live on stage is certainly a thrilling addition to the work: Dale Barltrop Violin I, Francesca Hiew Violin II, Christopher Cartlidge (Guest) Viola and Michael Dahlenburg Cello. It imparts a heightened sense of immediacy for the audience and, I suspect, enhances the dancers’ own visceral experience. The music is a commissioned work from Paris-based, Grammy Award-winning composer Bryce Dessner and was developed around the time of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire and the Australian bushfires of 2019/2020. Dessner writes: “These events, and their impacts, fundamentally shaped the architecture of this work and became pivotal to its development.” The score played with precision, passion and excellence by the ASQ was quintessentially linked to the choreography, Dessner often favouring, and completely familiar with, chamber music and stringed instruments. The feel of the composition was a mix of driving, intense sections quite reminiscent of Phillip Glass’ style and others that were more mellow and flowing, but the whole was certainly an affecting piece of music.


Spanish born Choreographer and Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, Bonachela was the eldest of four brothers in 1970’s Spain, when Franco was still conducting his dictatorship. He was drawn to dance instinctively with no familial precedent and pursued training in Barcelona, eventually joining London’s Rambert Dance Company as a dancer in 1992. This was also where Bonachela took his first choreographic steps after which his career soared in diverse directions - working for Kylie Minogue, as well as many distinguished European companies. In 2008, Sydney Dance Company invited Bonachela to create a piece for the company (360°) and a few months later he was offered the Artistic Director position.


Bonachela states that he looks for “…dancers with intelligent bodies and open minds”. The company he has built is definitely a collection of sixteen fiercely talented individuals with diverse bodily proportions and training and is a deliberate preference. SDC is arguably Australia’s only company that works with ‘pure’ contemporary dance on the main stage. By this I mean that the choreographic language is traditional, in the main, and so heavily informed by modern dance and classical ballet and has no narrative journey but possesses images that may suggest elements of story. The structure of Impermanence is an amalgam of group work, solos, duets and the like with recognisable compositional tools: unison, cannon, mirroring, traverse, theme & variation and retrograde etc.


Impermanence began with a minimalist stage and the strong image of all the dancers traversing linear space in pathways horizontal to the front of the stage. Various individuals were caught up in the flow of ‘traffic’, others were thrown against that flow and struggled to return, still others raced ahead or went in an opposite direction. An elegant metaphor for our existence as we negotiate the societies we live in, Bonachela has been inspired to create Impermanence recognizing the fragility of human lives, the ephemerality of nature and structures, particularly in the wake of a global pandemic and natural disasters.


The choreography in all its guises was elemental and beautiful to witness. The dancers are all commanding with exquisite technique on show. Bonachela cites his love of collaborative process, so the dancers are involved in generating movement that will shape both the language and the entirety of the piece. The cohesiveness of this Company of dancers is also compelling as is the synergy of having musicians present on stage, costumed as the dancers are in muted neutrals, and having a choreographic input of their own as the physicality of their playing resonates with the danced movement.


An uncomplicated but captivating design aesthetic underpins Impermanence. Lighting Designer Damien Cooper, Stage Designer David Fleischer and Costume Designer Aleisa Jelbart have all contributed to the totality of this work. Lighting in particular was genius involving a plain white block out ‘blind’ covering all but a small strip of the cyclorama. This changing stripe and the corresponding general lighting ambience was an integral part of the imagery taking on different hues as the work progressed, growing wider or shrinking or had subtle moving imagery cast upon it. To start with, this strip was a simple dark line giving the impression of a distant horizon with the stage appearing limitless.


For the final moments of Impermanence, a solo dancer moved with the live quartet partnered with a recorded song, Another World by Anohni. A gentle, yearning finale giving the audience time to pause and reflect on the event and images just witnessed and perhaps sit with our notions of vulnerability and what it is to be human.


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