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Sydney Dance Company: New Breed 2016 review (Carriageworks, Sydney)

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Now in its third year, Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed has proven itself to be a wonderful laboratory for rising choreographic talents to test new ideas and stretch their choreographic muscles.

Those choreographers have been drawn from around the country and within the ranks of Sydney Dance Company’s dancers, many of whom have tried their hand at choreographing for the first time in New Breed. 

And there are real opportunities for these works, as fresh and unruly as they can be, to be developed.

One of the works from the first year of New Breed, Gabrielle Nankivell’s wonderful full ensemble piece Wildebeest, has since evolved and been given a main stage slot as one half of Sydney Dance Company’s Untamed.

The success of the program lies not just in the strength of the choreographers, but in the support they’re given and the resources they have to work with, thanks to the Balnaves Foundation. Not only do the choreographers have their work performed by a group of SDC dancers, but they’re also given all the benefits of a full professional staging, with professional costumes and lighting design (this year by Wendy James and Benjamin Cisterne, respectively).

The 2016 program starts with SDC dancer Jesse Scales’ short, dark and tormented What You See, performed by Cass Mortimer Eipper, Nelson Earl and Latisha Sparks.

The first solo, performed by Mortimer Eipper, is strangely disjointed and never really takes hold. But things pick up with Earl’s twitchy, tightly wound, but hugely expressive solo, and then again with Sparks’s .

Richard Cilli’s funny and surprisingly moving Hinterland follows, featuring some wonderful interpretive vocalising from the dancers and some excellent references to the movie Titanic.

There’s something comforting and disarming in the way that Cilli seems to acknowledge, from the very start, that meaning is assigned to movement and sound, and that this act doesn’t always have a great deal of rhyme or reason. And the results of doing so can be galvanising and sometimes very funny for an audience.

The piece begins with a single dancer moving sporadically around the stage — some movements are sharp, others are smooth and slow — while eight other dancers come up with a vocal soundtrack to match that movement.

Once Cilli, the dancers, and the audience are all on the same page — that there’s no inherently profound meaning in any outer, observable movement, merely the ones we’re taught to assign — he’s able to delve into a deeper exploration of how our interior lives relate to our outer selves.

The movement evolves and eventually includes more and more dancers as other performers create vocal soundtracks. Then Liszt’s piano solo Chapelle de Guillaume Tell takes over, and we’re thrust into quite a different world.

The selection of the music used by Cilli becomes gently humorous as it seems to be constantly drawing to a grand, overwrought conclusion. Cadence after cadence suggests an end point as the dancers writhe in a mass towards the front of the stage, clinging to one another and slowly collapsing into a hep.

Rachel Arianne Ogle’s of dust is similarly bold — exploring a connection between the evolution of stars and our own journey through life and death — but never becomes particularly emotionally resonant. It draws together Cisterne’s wonderfully inventive lighting design with Ned Beckley’s scratching, shuffling electronic soundscapes to stunning theatrical effect, but despite some moments of flair (particularly in the wonderfully liberated movement given to the superb Charmene Yap) the choreographic language doesn’t seem as expansive as you might hope for such a subject.

Ogle seems intrigued by the way her five dancers relate to and connect with one another, but there are lengthy sequences of dancers connected by limbs that feel more like corporate team bonding exercises than an exploration of life and death.

Shian Law’s Epic Theatre wraps up the program with the most experimental piece of the night.

Part of the work subverts how the audience experiences the performance and the use of the performance space with a large group of volunteers, but it would be a bit of a spoiler to give too much away here.

For the bulk of the 30 minutes, the piece is performed in a fairly traditional set-up — the audience sittting in the bleachers of Carriageworks, watching dancers perform. Law’s use of the volunteers in this section, as they almost become one with the dancers, is particularly powerful.

The work begins with quite an energetic pace as the dancers bounce off one another before eventually slowing right down to a near stand-still for several minutes. As bright lights blaze through fog across the stage, and musician Marco Cher-Gibard plays his pulsing electronic soundtrack, the dancers slowly adjust in a tableau which forms and reforms in front of the audience. At several points a dancer frozen in position is lifted and moved across the stage. It’s unexpectedly mesmerising, and feels like the hottest day of Summer on Miami Beach in the mid-90s.

Eventually the dancers break into faster, simple, coordinated motions, as they become every gathering of people, performing as a throng of partygoers with their hands in the air and then some loose and very amateur martial arts inspired movement.

It’s the type of contemporary dance work that often draws gripes from audiences who wanted more “dance”, but it’s a smart, stylish and engrossing piece of theatre, and brave new territory for a company like SDC.

New Breed is at Carriageworks until December 10

Featured image: Epic Theatre, photo by Pedro Greig

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