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Dance review: Sydney Dance Company’s Ascent


From the divine elegance of Rafael Bonachela’s I Am-ness to the wild explosion of Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever, this triple bill is a vibrant celebration of contemporary dance forms and what they have to say about the origins of dance.

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The performance opens with I Am-ness, a new work from SDC’s artistic director. The phrase “I am-ness” describes the act of the physical body and conscious mind behaving as one and this is reflected in Bonachela’s choreography where idea, emotion and action meld in an enchanting expression of humanity.

As is usual with Bonachela, the work is quietly intimate and deeply embedded in classical ballet, yet there’s a lot going on. The quartet of dancers execute a swarm of intricate movements in gentle harmony with each other and with Pēteris Vasks’ exquisite soundtrack of silky strings. The interweaving and overlapping limbs create a sense of effortless synchronicity that belies the strength and precision required to perform such manoeuvres.

I Am-ness is an intelligent work that has much to say about the way we interact as humans, joining and breaking, individual yet interconnected, ultimately bonded in our shared humanity, our shared physicality, our use of movement to express ourselves.

Rafael Bonachela’s I Am-ness. Photo: Pedro Greig

The second piece, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird, is more theatrical in execution, more abstract in its soundscape of instrumentally created bird calls and rainfall (Nick Wales). The stage-set (Lauren Brincat and Leah Giblin) shines alongside the dancers, hung as it is with great swathes of fabric that act as dynamic sculptures. Taking on the appearance of petticoats, sails, tents and mountain-scapes, they curtsey, flounce, flap and unfurl thanks to the efforts of the dancers themselves, who raise and drop the sculptures using the thick ropes attached to the fabric. The tension and angles held in the cables is also visible in the taut muscles and angled limbs of the dancers hoisting the weight of the heavy material and bracing against it: the sculptures become part of the dance, the dancers become part of the sculpture.

Created for Sydney Dance Company earlier this year by Danish Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Marina Mascarell, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird is the perfect intermediary piece. It moves away from classical ballet to explore human transformation and our bond with the rhythms of land and animal, from the gentle birdlike movements as the dancers pick their way delicately around the stage, to more energetic formation pieces with the troupe occasionally pausing en masse, ropes in hand, to look off into the distance in poses reminiscent of colonial depictions of exploration and discovery.

The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird. Photo: Pedro Greig

The final piece, Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever, takes a further step away from Bonachela’s quiet, intimate work. (Hamilton says he wanted the piece to be “like an assault, sonically and visually”). It begins with no sound at all, just a lone dancer on stage, bopping away as if in the throes of club ecstasy, forcing us to question the language of dance and the way it speaks to us differently without its musical backdrop.

The soundtrack, when it arrives, is minimal: a four-beat rhythm, repeated over and over, with just the occasional pings and whines by way of melody. Primal and pulsing, it’s strangely compelling, the repetitive beats of Gen X taken to the extreme. It was created by Hamilton’s brother Julian, singer-songwriter with electronic duo The Presets, and it sets the tone for this remarkable work which is both self-deprecatingly funny and contemporary as all get-out.

The rest of the troupe arrives on stage, robed up in black and white like the KLF. And when the robes are removed to reveal some oversized rapper costumes, one gets the impression that there’s a KLF sense of humour at play here – it’s as much about having fun as it is about exploring deep philosophical meaning.

Which is not to say there isn’t much to ponder and admire in Forever & Ever. The costumes, by Hamilton’s partner Paula Levis, are extraordinary, layer after layer removed in matrioska-style reveals until the dancers are down to sports bras, body paint and tight-fitting shorts, moving in formation like a well-oiled machine.

Antony Hamilton’s Forever & Ever. Photo: Pedro Greig

As the costumes are pared back, so too is the soundtrack, which eventually becomes little more than one or two beeps and pings. Still the performance continues, and again we must pause to think about the nature of dance and the human affinity with rhythm, the compulsion to express it with our bodies no matter how simple the beat.

Ascent is a cleverly constructed program which moves from the min to the max of contemporary tropes and technological input while simultaneously travelling further back into the origins of dance. It’s about transformation, adaptation, innovation, movement.

Forever & Ever is the perfect finale: with its nods to the club scene and fashion world, it’s very much of the now, but ultimately it brings us right back to the beginning of dance when the first beats were tapped out on cave walls and something alive and powerful stirred in the bodies of humankind. The journey is made all the more enjoyable by Sydney Dance Company, who execute each piece with relentless energy and mind-blowing skill.

Sydney Dance Company’s Ascent will be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse until May 14.

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