An astonishing double bill of powerful, personal and poetic dance.

Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay
March 9, 2015

The ‘arts’ is a subject that is largely spoken about in superlatives: the greatest; the most revered; the most acclaimed, etc. Used with such frequency (and for good reason) these descriptors can begin to lose their potency, and so adequately expressing an experience of truly astonishing achievement risks falling short of conveying the truth of that accomplishment. So with that in mind, I start my review of the Sydney Dance Company’s season opener by wiping my slate clean: I’m resetting the bar by which I measure these experiences, and I’m placing at the highest level the masterful genius of American choreographer William Forsythe, creator of the evening’s first piece, Quintett.

Created in 1993 for the Frankfurt Ballet, this piece could be described as a collection of deceptively simple expressions: a love letter to Forsythe’s dying wife and an exploration of hyperextended Ballet technique. I say deceptive, because of course both of these are wrought with complexity, both artistic and emotional, and thus Quintett is a hurricane of ideas, interactions and revelations.

Chloe Leong and Sam Young-Wright in Quintett
Photo: Peter Greig

Gavin Bryars’ accompanying score, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is similarly deceptive in its quietly devastating simplicity. A grainy, looped recording, made in 1971 in London, of a homeless man singing a simple religious song begins as a barely audible, distant melody, and gradually over the work’s 26 minutes acquires a slowly evolving, growing instrumental accompaniment. With a gentle, slightly lopsided gait and an insistent optimism, which is simultaneously tinged with tragedy, Bryars’ music, almost unnoticed, creeps under the skin and magnifies the intense poignancy of Forsythe’s steps.

The movement pairs a distinctly balletic grace with a more primitive, instinctual impulse. It’s playful, but there’s desperation in this game. The intimate company of five dancers, who collide, pair-up, and separate once more in a constantly shifting puzzle of different combinations, sprint around the stage, inexhaustibly searching for the next pas de deux or trio. They slip from long-limbed lines to squat, angular shapes, raging against the dimly lit space, in dance that is at once exhilarating and desolate, unbearably tender and heartbreakingly furious. It’s unsurprising perhaps that Forsythe’s ode to his wife, dying of cancer at the age of 32, should be a piece about duality: joy and despair; life and mortality; desperation and resignation.

Similarly, the essence of the choreography is both contemporary in nature and yet undeniably ballet. It belongs to both worlds and yet to neither and as such is both an arrival and departure. But overwhelmingly it is a statement about the ability of raw physicality and human interaction to express the most complex and unspeakable nuances of human feeling. Rarely does an artist tap so vividly and movingly into a universal experience, articulated with such a unique and individual vernacular.

It’s difficult, even unfair to single anyone out from the excellent selection of dancers charged with realising this gruelling piece, but Sam Young-Wright deserves special mention. His ability to switch seamlessly between Quintett’s poised balletic extensions and suddenly intemperate explosions of movement were transfixing.

Needless to say, Forsythe’s Quintett is a very hard act to follow, but taking up this unenviable challenge was SDC’s Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela, with his new full-ensemble piece Frame of Mind. Born out of Bonachela’s experience of wanting, or even needing, to be in two places at the same time, this high-energy work is set to three of the four pieces from Bryce Dessner’s indefatigable 2009 collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Aheym.

Ralph Myers’ set places the action in a dilapidated rehearsal room with harsh florescent lighting hanging down from above and a huge, dusty window dominating one wall – a metaphor perhaps for distant memories from the choreographer’s formative years as a young, aspiring performer.

Frame of Mind 
Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela holds nothing back, hurling a blistering torrent of ferocious movement at the audience from the very beginning, matching the intensity of Dessner’s relentless music. This is a battleground: the full company of black-clad dancers break from astonishing unisons into fractured, swirling currents, moving fearlessly between each other across a stage which is full to bursting point. The action takes its cues from the music, building to a dazzling crescendo, before suddenly dissolving into a tender duet. The fight, however, is far from over, with seductive embraces aggressively split open and forcefully remade, while other figures casually observe this wrestling match from the sidelines, in the shadows.

There is a taut directness to Bonachela’s movement that make this piece immediately rewarding. His resourceful use of the full company, moving from frenetic ensembles, to delicate yet impassioned solos, and various inventive combinations in between, make for some thrilling viewing. However there is a risk in hanging a personal narrative off another, entirely unrelated work, and despite the synergy Bonachela’s choreography shares with Dessner’s music, there are moments where the dance is forced to linger on a particular narrative territory in service of the score – this dance is at its best when it is allowed to flow unimpeded from one narrative impulse to the next.

This is a rather minor shortcoming however, and on the whole Frame of Mind is an accomplished work that has some moments of truly monumental impact, such as the second tutti climax where the writhing ensemble abruptly freeze, suddenly up-lit, staring starkly into the audience with a fiercely severe intensity – quite simply, breathtaking. Forsythe may be hard to beat, but Bonachela comes very close.

Sydney Dance Company present Frame of Mind, at Sydney Theatre until March 21, Canberra Theatre Centre April 30 – May 2, and Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, May 6 – 16.