Sydney Dance Company ends 2019 with a double bill celebrating its 50th birthday. To celebrate the occasion, Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela commissioned Gideon Obarzanek, a former dancer with the company, to create a new work called Us 50, which brings together the current dancers, SDC alumni and audience members. Bonachela pairs this with his own piece 6 Breaths, which he created for the company in 2010.

Us 50. Photograph © Pedro Greig

The evening begins with a film looking back over the company’s five-decade history, which pays special tribute to Graeme Murphy who ran SDC for 30 years with Janet Vernon. Clips from various productions show the range of work created across the years, encapsulating the theatricality of Murphy’s productions and the transition to Bonachela’s very different style of choreography.

Bonachela’s 6 Breaths is choreographed to mournful, sonorous music by Ezio Bosso for six cellos and a piano. It begins in darkness with a stunning, ethereal video by Tim Richardson on a front scrim in which a flurry of swirling, leaf-like shards gather to form the head of a classical-looking marble bust, later seen to be a couple. Once formed, the shards drift away again and the heads disappear.

The choreography begins in darkness, with spotlights picking out dancers through the haze. A meditation on different forms of breath, the piece unfolds in six sections, with Bonachela marrying his choreography to the pulse of the score, with its climactic crescendos. Solos and duets build to bursts of precise unison from the full company. At the heart of 6 Breaths is a thrilling duet by Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleioris, in which they seem irrevocably drawn to each other, while also pushing each other apart.

Benjamin Cisterne’s shadowy lighting is an essential element, with costumes by Josh Goot. There are many new company members in the current SDC line-up but the dancing is as dazzling as ever.

Sheree da Costa and Jesse Scales in Us 50. Photograph © Don Arnold

Obarzanek’s Us 50 is an exhilarating, heart-warming piece that explores the relationship between the dancers and the audience, and the joy that forms when a community gathers to share a piece of movement. It’s something he has investigated in a number of recent productions including Attractor, created with Lucy Guerin, and One Infinity.

Here he brings together the current dancers, 10 SDC alumni – Wakako Asano, Bradley Chatfield, Sheree da Costa, Kathryn Dunn, Lea Francis, Kip Gamblin, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Linda Ridgway Gamblin, and Nina Veretennikova – along with 25 audience members.

The audience members – who have previously put in a request to take part – have had no rehearsal, but are told what to do by Assistant Choreographer Charmene Yap through an earpiece. The group chosen on opening night included some other former SDC dancers, including Tracey Carrodus, Ross Philip and Georgia Shepherd.

Choreographed to music by Chris Clark, which moves from grating chords to propulsive rhythms, the piece begins with Sheree da Costa centrestage, with the other dancers lined up down the sides of the stage. Gradually they coalesce. Later the audience members gradually rise from their seats in the auditorium and make their way to the stage.

The choreography has a loose, relaxed simplicity, with walking developing into more detailed movement, as swaying hips, flowing arms and hand gestures create vibrant patterns. Heads are rested on shoulders, and at one point they all start jumping. There’s a wonderful section where Bradley Chatfield starts to walk around the stage in a big circle, then is gradually followed by other dancers as the movement gradually expands. In another lovely section, audience members are paired off with dancers and face each other so that the non-dancers can echo the dancers’ movements.

Us 50. Photograph © Pedro Greig

The costuming by Harriet Oxley subtly differentiates the groups – the alumni in shades of maroon, red and brown, the current SDC dancers in shiny greys, pinks and green, with the audience in their own clothes.

Though it may sound like an odd mix, it all comes together in a gorgeous union and flows seamlessly, poignantly illustrating the way older dancers move when they no longer have the same flexibility as in their youth (though Wakako Asano doesn’t seem to have aged a jot). It also proves that everyone can dance.

It ends with all 50 lined up along the front of the stage – audience members sitting at the front, the SDC dancers behind them, and the alumni at the back. As they move their arms and hands together in swirling movement, it’s a joyous sight and a tribute to the power of dance whether you’re performing or watching.

Bonachela/Obarzanek plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre, Sydney until November 9


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