It must be the music. With this Sydney Dance Company triple bill, all to the music of Benjamin Britten, Rafael Bonachela achieves a rich depth of character and emotional intensity between his dancers; a narrative of personal drama not always present in his choreography.
And Britten’s varied music — one minute cheeky, the next sensuous or forbidding — certainly gives him a lot to play with. Bonachela always says the music is his starting point.
Appropriately then, Britten takes centre-stage; played live by the 17 string musicians of ACO2, the second company of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. When songstress Katie Noonan joins the band, for the second darker work, Les Illuminations, the impact is electric.
These exciting collaborative forces first came together when the SDC staged Les Illuminations and Britten’s more playful Simple Symphony on a raised T-shaped stage in a studio venue in 2013. And it was a hit. This time, at the front of the orchestra, the 16 dancers repeat their success, pacing out the yearning and human foibles at the heart of Britten’s music. A third work by Bonachela, also to Britten, is new.
First up, the beautiful Simple Symphony was composed by Britten when aged 18; it’s an innocent ode to his happy childhood. Bonachela brings to its four sections a signature classical courtliness, but also a cheekiness to match the music. As the musicians finger pluck their strings, creating an air of childish adventure, the four dancers explore and test the space around each other.
The duets though, notably with Todd Sutherland and Fiona Jopp, end artfully in tender embraces across the floor. Toni Maticevski’s gossamer body stockings, with highlighted shoulders, underline the courtliness of this young ideal of love.
Les Illuminations is thankfully a very different story. The now older Britten was inspired, transfixed apparently, by the French bad boy poet Rimbaud and his (teenage) erotic odes to his lover Paul Verlaine. Britten’s own love life was also developing, with his first relationship, to young Wulff Scherchen, to whom he dedicated a section of the new work. And another he dedicated to tenor Peter Pears, whose friendship with Britten would soon become far more.
With lyrics from Rimbaud, Les Illuminations captures a far more complex love, one laced with yearning, suspicion, sexual obsession and even cruelty. Maticevski dresses this far more adult affair in fetishistic blacks, in go-go shorts and tight sleeveless tops, mesh stretched across midriffs.
Meanwhile, lighting man Ben Cisterne effectively deepens the bare stage into shadows and dappled spots. Katie Noonan stands in black amongst the musicians projecting a thrilling voice which slides down scales and trills bird-like into the higher registers. Guest violinist Thomas Gould is the music director.
In front, dancers prowl, negotiate and reach for each other, through a quick mix of duets and quartets. There’s inspirational choreography here as they dance and tumble over each other back to back. Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap are standouts as he endlessly reaches to grab and hold her; she always slips sadly through his bond. Yap and Juliette Barton then dance through a parade of vicious female rivalry. The work ends appropriately and explosively with a frankly gay exploration of brinkmanship and sexual tension by Mortimer Eipper and Richard Cilli.
For his third and new work, Variation 10 (pictured above), Bonachela turned to Britten’s 1937 score, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Here again Bonachela reveals similar expressive details of relations as in the earlier works, but employing the full ensemble, he’s mostly back to his bigger group dynamics.
Dancers peel off from the core or merge back in streams, eddying around or standing still and statuesque. A female group rushes urgently to a male one; elsewhere Cilli in solo arcs and stretches across the the floor, all to the varied music of Britten, speedy as Mozart or spurting with anguish.
It’s a stop-start choreography overly divided into short movements. Variation 10 lacks the unifying narrative or emotional arc that so satisfied in Les Illuminations. The dancers sport Maticevski’s grey and silver body stockings, most trailing an inexplicable plumage of gauze out the back.
Together, it’s an impressive triple bill, exalting the music and showcasing an impressive live collaboration of musical and choreographic skills. It heads soon to Melbourne and then overseas.