SDC Triple Bill dance review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

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Grimy zombies getting down to the pulsating beat of late night parties was the audience favourite at the opening of Sydney Dance Company’s new triple bill.  Melanie Lane’s Woof (pictured above) is really about individual and collective behaviour but it’s a thrilling dance work flush with wit and invention.

Woof is the final treat in Rafael Bonachela’s typically well-structured program, which begins with an airy piece by Gabrielle Nankivell and a typically frenzied new one from Bonachela.

This Season One marks the 50th anniversary of SDC and Bonachela’s achievement, after now a decade in the top job, of presenting both international and Australian choreographers.  
 
Gabrielle Nankivell’s earlier success, Wildebeest, evoking myths of nature and fanciful creatures, emerged from the SDC’s inaugural New Breed program in 2014; and was then expanded and toured overseas.
 
In Neon Aether she now reaches skywards to that purest layer of air that the Greeks believed was breathed only by the gods. Indeed, in a score rich with space age sounds and nostalgia, composer Luke Smiles kicks off with heavy breathing and a Houston launch countdown. Sometimes lyrical, always unsettling, his score is punctuated with the mechanical switches and grinds of vintage technology.

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‘Neon Aether’ by Gabrielle Nankivell

Nankivell’s eight dancers occasionally match in clockwork lines but are mostly entangled or reaching into and hanging in the air. Harriet Oxley dresses them in light boilersuits in a palette of colours, apparently, to represent the horizon, the atmosphere and the planets. Colours are powerfully etched in Damien Cooper’s mostly sideways lighting, snapping views of the dancers through hues of blue, orange, green and yellow.    
 
Human relationships and intimacies are not the focus here – or in any of this triple bill – and a contemporary dance work about air does threaten to drift away into the clouds. And space story aside, Smiles’ edgy score can seem abrasive against Nankivell’s intent (despite their real life partnership living in the Adelaide Hills). 
 
Nankivell however delivers some beautifully evocative small group movement and, presumably on their arrival up in Neon Aether, a joyously poppy chorus line from the dancers. A solo female brings us to a strong end finely dancing to and through the air.
 
The company has this year taken on six new dancers and the standard is high (but no cast list to identify them). And so are the production values of this Season One which so supports how we read these choreographers.
 
Damien Cooper is again at the lighting board for Bonachela’s new work, bringing an added urgency of glaring white sidelights and freeze flashes.  
 
Cinco means “five” in Bonachela’s native Spanish and here he uses five dancers against a five-part string quartet by the 20th century Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.  It sets a cracking pace for some elastic dynamic dancing with limbs stretched, searching, then snapping back in quick reflexes.
 
The group moves often organically, almost spidery, at one point like organisms reaching up from the floor of earthly beginnings. But on their feet, leaping upwards, the dancers look smart in their short Grecian style tunics transparent in silk, from fashion designer Bianco Spender, all given yet more impact by Cooper’s lighting snaps.

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‘Cinco’ by Rafael Bonachela

Bonachela knows how to drive a show but this one, again to his favourite taut strings, is always at the same high speed. It’s no rest for the wicked.
 
The wicked really come out in Melanie Lane’s Woof, which was another commission by SDC for its New Breeds program, this one in 2017.
 
Here given full stage treatment, Lane first teases us with slow tableaux of this odd community in profile. Reassembling in flash blackouts, their poses look drawn from Renaissance paintings but these 12 dancers in tights or soft casual wear are smeared with black. They peel off to prowl the stage but mostly in small group formations.

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‘Woof’ by Melanie Lane

Like kids, one long line spins centrifugally, spinning off the outer dancers, but then they’re reassembling and raising corpses above their heads. To the dissonant acoustics of composer Clark, beginning to pound into party beat, they strut and fawn around each other, twitching and finally trembling like zombies.  They are both individual and group beings, causing chain reactions through their tribe, producing a crowd wave of performance.
 
Lane’s choreography is masterfully artful and yet deep dream touching in its humanity. On their toes now, small stepping, the dancers emerge united in hilarious arse sashaying detail.

If this is a sassy party of late-nighters, it ends with them leaving, standing tall, through a curtain of light and Clark’s finally celestial climax. Woof is wonderful.

Until April 13. Photos by Pedro Greig 

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