Sydney Dance Company: Untamed review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

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Untamed leads with Gabrielle Nankivell’s mesmerising journey through forms of animals, humans and mechanised tribes, and closes in a whirlpool of flying dance with Rafael Bonachela returning to his favourite sounds of strings and cello.

In matching her work Wildebeest with his, Anima, Bonachela shows again his knack for good artistic direction at Sydney Dance Company, programming works which extend and yet complement each other. The audience gets dance diversity and Bonachela gets good partners for his own dance work.

He made a wise decision two years ago when he asked Nankivell to be one of the five emerging choreographers charged to come up with something for the debut of New Breed. With visionary support from the Balnaves Foundation, New Breed is a now an annual development showcase of new dance staged by the SDC every December.

Nankivell has actually been emerging for a while. Based mostly in South Australia, she’s experienced there and worldwide as a choreographer for hire and, as with many choreographers today, also has good credits working in theatre and film. It shows up in the engaging dramaturgy at the heart of Wildebeest.

The drama and choreographic detail in this constantly metamorphosing portrait of animals and fanciful creatures has blossomed beautifully since those developmental days back in the cavernous Carriageworks space. It’s backed again by an amazing soundscape of stormy weather, soaring song and grinding noise from frequent collaborator Luke Smiles. He knows a bit about dovetailing sound and movement, having been a dancer himself for decades, notably with Melbourne’s Chunky Move.   

Fiona Holley’s design of autumnal coloured tops and shorts have a touch of sparkle at the collar, enough to suggest the grandeur of myth which underpins this tribe of wildebeests. Out of Benjamin Cisterne’s shadows, they come, animals strutting, sniffing the air, both cautious and territorial. Continually they are subsumed into groups, big and small, of more mechanised beasts, humans perhaps, fast moving arms high or angular to the tick of clocks.

Nankivell is masterful at always reforging these groups, as lines peel out from an unseen axis and others join in from a centrifugal spin of running. The birds and animals are always returning, their hands detailed as claws, in a wonderful parade of indigenous mimicry of fauna.   

From Bernhard Knauer’s first new born animal to Cass Mortimer Eipper’s gloriously long limbed lion, from Charmene Yap to Janessa Duffy’s closing single beast, this ensemble obviously thrills to this stretch into such dramatic new dance realities. It’s not often you get to shape-shift from beast to human to machine, from myth to the future, and all in 30 minutes. It’s a fantastical journey for us too.

Wildebeest. Photo by Pedro Greig
Wildebeest. Photo by Pedro Greig

Rafaela Bonachela’s work, as usual, doesn’t feature such elements of characterisation or storytelling – even though a dramaturg is here credited (Samuel Webster).

Anima is driven by four short movements for strings and cello by the Bulgarian-born, London composer Dobrinka Tabakova. It’s a never-pausing torrent of swirling partners and flying bodies, arms and legs thrust skywards to the limit. The focus shifts seamlessly through a fast movement of duets, trios and the whole ensemble. 

Bonachela handles these segues seamlessly with his usual aplomb, and a sharp eye for giving the music physical expression, perfectly matched. And with such stirring strings, expressive of such human yearning, his high energy choreography is easy on the eye.

Just as his patterning becomes repetitious, lighting man Benjamin Cisterne is there bringing a new colour palette to each new movement of music and dance. His stage glowing in reds, ambers and blues, Cisterne’s side lighting transforms the dancers into figures of luminescence.

Some of this is strangely reminiscent of the sort of Bob Fosse jazz ballet you used to see on telly. But back then you certainly never saw anything like Bonachela’s lengthy male duo with Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis. Quicksilver in its constant reaching and withdrawing, the duo is also tender with detail of hands and other recurring motifs.   

Then everyone returns for a leap-high finale and the show is over. It’s a hit but it would last more in the memory if that dramaturg had been put to more work.

Untamed is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until October 29.

Featured image: Anima, photo by Pedro Greig

One response to “Sydney Dance Company: Untamed review (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney)

  1. A great review of a stunning dance performances.
    Sydney dance reviewers are usually not up to the task (e.g. JS at the Herald), but this review is detailed and genuinely informative rather than judgmental and euphoric or dismissive.

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