6 Breaths. Pic: Pedro Greig

Dance, Reviews, Stage

Bonachela/Obarzanek review (Sydney Dance Company)

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Thanks to all those pushy, once brazen young baby-boomers, many Australian arts organisations are now marking their 40th or even 50th anniversary. So is Sydney Dance Company. It’s celebrating a half century since beginning as a small dance-in-schools outfit called The Dance Company (NSW) – it was renamed and remade seven years later when Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon took over.

Current artistic director Rafael Bonachela marks the birthday with this revival of his 6 Breaths – an early work in his ten year tenure – matched to a new piece by Gideon Obarzanek, Us 50, which mixes the company’s dancers with older ones returning, and even members of the audience, to show how dance is remembered and passed on by generations of bodies.

It’s odd that no Murphy work has ever been re-staged or new commission offered since he left the SDC – after running it for three decades. Instead, we get glorious snapshots of past works in a short film which begins this double bill. And what a great reminder it is of Murphy’s signature: classically inventive, heart-felt but witty, often high camp, dance theatre rich with character and topical voice.    

Both Bonachela and Murphy have brought to the company a rich parade of designers and musical collaborations, and Bonachela has gone further by commissioning many other overseas choreographers. But not Murphy. Perhaps the SDC’s flashy young dance brand means the company must stay looking ahead, and never over its shoulder, but it’s a loss given the meaningless aridity of much contemporary dance today.

That said, there’s nothing too arid about this double bill. 6 Breaths is allegedly about six phases of breathing but with this one Bonachela showed Sydney early that he’s a far more abstract choreographer. Tom Richardson’s beautiful video art, with its flying shards dissolving and then re-assembling into human busts, conveys the breath of life with much more impact than the dance.  

Somehow this melting pot of older, younger and untrained dancers from the audience conveys a physical language of sharing, unity and co-ordination, without one group dominating.

Yet, meaning suspended, 6 Breaths is still often compelling choreography, the dancers on an open stage, single or in pairs, spotlit out of the shadows by Benjamin Cisterne’s overhead lights. Their movement begins as surprisingly lyrical and deliberate, before Bonachela’s usual signature of kinetic frenzy kicks in. He’s had a long love for the cello and here he has six of them and a piano in a driving sumptuous score by Italy’s Ezio Bosso.  

Soon his 15 outstanding dancers are working in sharp unison or scattered into smaller groups fracturing and then repeating the choreography.  Most striking of all is a complex push-pull male duo of needing and discarding by the dancers Dimitri Kleioris and Riley Fitzgerald. Presumably there was breathing …   

Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, by contrast, has a theatrical interest in stories, communities and where the dance audience fits into all this. A former SDC dancer himself from 1989, well known as a founder of Chunky Move in Melbourne, Obarzanek recruited ten alumni to return home and join the SDC’s youngsters for Us 50.  

On an optimistically white open stage, this dancing crowd – loosely dressed (by Harriet Oxley) in pastel-coloured sportswear with a sparkle – copy and follow each other’s movements, in a wave of arms, hip thrusts and gliding forms. 

Outstanding is the fluid grace of one initiator, the 61-year-old Sheree da Costa (she signed up to the SDC at the age of 19, just after Murphy). Other memorable presences included Bradley Chatfield, Lee Francis and Kip Gamblin. There are lots of arms rising and quick turns in a choreography without complexity, but the effect is both lilting and rhythmic, especially to Chris Clark’s elemental, clattering dance score.

Midway, the numbers double as 25 volunteers trek on stage from the audience. With their huge turning circles and epic lines, we could be at a community sportsground, village fair or tribal dance party, the movements flowing communally or striking out individually. 

Somehow this melting pot of older, younger and untrained dancers from the audience conveys a physical language of sharing, unity and co-ordination, without one group dominating. Hell, they even start to artfully pogo dance in pairs.

Nearly 40 minutes is enough of Up 50. It ends with fifty human beings front-stage ranked in rows, creating a sea of well synchronised, articulate hands, not drowning but waving, to the future. And that’s my kind of church.  

The show is an interestingly communal hint of what to expect next year from Gideon Obarzanek’s first Melbourne Festival. 

Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek double bill plays until November 9. Tickets: $25-$92 sydneydancecompany.com

4 responses to “Bonachela/Obarzanek review (Sydney Dance Company)

  1. Martin, Martin, Martin, I would expect better from you. When writting an article research is key and I sense you didn’t do much of it with this one. When you say “Bonachela has gone further by commissioning many other overseas choreographers. But not Murphy.” – How wrong can you be. Graeme Murphy was at the forefront of commissioning many overseas choreographers (Louis Falco (you know “Fame”), Ohad Naharin, Ralph Lemon, Stephen Petronio, just to name a few). He also brought out whole companies from overseas many times (Ballet Preljocaj for example). No “flash in the pants” here, excuse my French. Not to mention producing and nurturing some of the best young and emerging Australian choreographers and artists (Stephen Page, Paul Mercurio, Kim Walker, Gideon Obarzanek to mention a few) who have achieved their own fame getting their start at SDC. How do I know this, well I have filmed most of this throughout the years…

    1. I think he meant that bonechela hasn’t commissioned Murphy, an Australian choreographer, but has commissioned overseas choreographers. I think….

      1. I think you’re right but that’s odd.

        This year has had Melanie Lane, Gabi Nankivell and Gideon all who have a history with the company (and may I also say future) and are Australian.

        More to the point of “Perhaps the SDC’s flashy young dance brand means the company must stay looking ahead, and never over its shoulder”. This is a silly comment when your reviewing a piece with alumni dancers of the company who danced in the 70s, choreographed by Gideon who danced with the company in the 80s and founded Chunky Move in 1995.

        The “meaningless aridity of much contemporary dance” is also unjustified to anyone who saw Melanie Lanes WOOF earlier in the year or remembers Ekman’s Cacti.

        Poorly thought out Martin. I expected better

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