Dance, Reviews, Stage

SDC’s Countermove (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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With its now famous lampooning of dance critics and the vacuousness of so much contemporary dance, the compelling dance work of young Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman is a tough act to follow. In this Sydney Dance Company double bill, its artistic director Rafael Bonachela does so with a dark new work which appears to throw all quest for meaning to the shadows.

As for critics, we’re left to tiptoe through interpreting all this without sounding like Ekman’s funny voiceover of the pretentious prat opinionating on the meaning of obscure choreography.

Ekman says he now no longer feels the rage over — even interest in — the sins of critics, but six years ago it drove him to forge Cacti on the younger dancers of the Nederlands Dans Theater. Now 18 companies have performed the work, including the SDC earlier in 2013. No wonder its dancers give it such a slick, finely theatrical appeal in this new showing.

Sixteen dancers sit atop small white-topped platforms as a live quartet of classical musicians move amongst them. Like some Asian temple guardians, they are dressed in black skullcaps and loose pants, their chests bare (the women androgynous in tight skin coloured tops).

Read Ben Neutze’s interview with Alexander Ekman: The Dance World Needs to Change

They explode constantly into rhythmic banging, hand-jiving, martial arts and voguing, either impressively together or in lines sweeping across this draughtboard of slabs. Later, each is presented with their own cacti as some unwelcome gift from the critics. And that wanky voiceover intones — quite perceptively I thought at first! — about the slabs being both platforms of freedom but prisons of control.

So I’m taking no risks saying what Alexander Ekman means …but the surprise is the beauty, high production value and rhythmic sophistication of his satire. He speaks about the need for good entertainment to grab our attention and also achieve an experience essentially meditative. Cacti does that, boosted by Ekman’s own stage and costume design and the inventive shifting cross lighting from Tom Visser. The string quartet backed by an orchestral soundtrack sweeping though Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert further charms and stirs our engagement.

And through that meditation, Ekman shows a wicked sense of humour — and generates our laughter, which is a rare pleasure amongst the usual angst and anxieties of contemporary dance. This is most pointed in a delicious duet from Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap, to a voiceover of their own self-involved thoughts as dancers. They may dance together like athletes of beauty but they voice a rehearsal room mundanity which, of course, makes impossible all critical intellectualising. It’s just movement, and engagingly presented at that

Oscar Wilde, I think, quipped that an actor’s main job is to evaluate a critic’s work. Ekman, now 31, has moved on from the curse of the critics, but we’re lucky that he got it out of his system with Cacti.

The lighting and music are also stars in following work, Lux Tenebris, (pictured below), in which Rafael Bonachela promises to explore the human encounters which move in and out of light and shadows.

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Stage and lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne carves up the stage into throbbing squares of shadows, sometimes bordered by light, in which the dancers hurl out their limbs and swing each around at speed. Often a square of movement is identical to what is happening in another like some darkly shadowed mirror. While another square is madly danced in as though a prison. Elsewhere, ancient bulbs of light flash intermittent circles of attention through which we glimpse a dancing frenzy.

Driving this forward is the music of Bonachela’s five-time collaborator Nick Wales, studded with the growl of a primordial soundscape. It’s impressive staging and through the shadows Bonachela chooses a high octane, very kinetic choreography.

The hurled limbs, thrashing movements and earth bound crashes eventually appear repetitive and generalised but, with these production values, I remain involved. That cool stately restraint which is typical of Bonachela is here overridden by the energy of his dancers. And the duet between Todd Sutherland and molten-limbed Charmene Yap had real urgency and feeling. The meaning I leave to the shadows.

[box]CounterMove, which features Alexander Ekman’s Cacti and Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris is at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until June 4 and then is on a regional tour through New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Main image: A scene from Cacti. Photos by Peter Greig. This review was first published on Daily Review during the Sydney premiere season. [/box]

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