★★★★☆ Rules are joyfully bent and broken in four explorations of the new.

Carriageworks, Sydney
November 29, 2016

Sydney Dance Company Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela describes New Breed as an opportunity for young choreographers to “push the boundaries of their practice” by working on new, resourced works with dancers at the very top of their game. In this year’s outing, the third collaboration between SDC, Carriageworks and the Balnaves Foundation, boundaries are not only pushed, they’re bent, buckled and broken in a joyful celebration of the extended possibilities of the art form.

Jesse Scales – one of the two SDC dancers stepping up (the other is Richard Cilli) – opens proceedings with What You See, on the surface one of the more conventional offerings. Tackling themes of sadness, despair and depression, Scales exposes three lost souls in a series of solos, framing each with paced sequences where we explore ideas of barriers and defence mechanisms. Played out against the sound of heavy rain, Benjamin Cisterne’s moody lighting gives it a lonely Sydney, 2am sort of feel. Cass Mortimer Eipper conjures images of ruptured sleep patterns in his sensitively flexed solo, while Nelson Earl’s apprehension is worn on his expressive face as much as on a twisting body that feels like it may not be his own. Latisha Sparks anguished contortions dance out the epitome of regret before the three converge in a trio laced with claustrophobic choking, silent screams and a final desperate leap of faith. Max Richter’s spare, minor key music is a perfect choice.

Epic Theatre

Cilli’s Hinterland feels more experimental, exploring the tension between surface action and what lies beneath. Nine dancers in fatigues are required to move, speak and act in sequences ranging from simple movement to a full blown discussion of the dramatic merits of Jack and Rose in Titanic. Cilli is blessed with a fine sense of humour, and if the audience response felt slightly muted that might be to do with the required imaginative leaps to get to the big idea behind the somewhat disparate sections. The ideas clarify most effectively in the aforementioned Titanic debate. As each speaker puts his case, we see his or her underlying emotional state elaborated and expanded upon by the dancers lined up behind them.

In other sections, vocalisations are used to convey layers of meaning beneath a range of movements from the simple to the elaborate. It’s a bit like the Ministry of Silly Walks with added sound effects as the dancers engage in whoops, warbles, buzzes and boings while their colleagues leap and stretch. A sequence with amplified grunting climaxes in a fart scene to rival Blazing Saddles. Perhaps the most effective segment sees Liszt’s Chappelle de Guillaume Tell inspire a tangled forest of limbs in free-fall, collapsing into a writhing mass, a bit like a physical realisation of the famous Ship of Fools (though more likely Titanic inspired). My heart will go on, indeed…

Of Dust concludes the first half, Arianne Ogle’s exploration of the physics of the Universe. Using imagery redolent of both molecular structure and the forms of galaxies, its ambition ranges from the micro to the very macro indeed. Five dancers in a circle of eight shafts of light (great work from Cisterne again) embody the tension at the heart of the atom as they sway, rotate and spin off – limbs stretching elegantly – only to constantly reform. This is compelling, disciplined dance played out to a perfectly matched throbbing electronic soundtrack by Ned Beckley.

Epic Theatre

Orbitting and returning, the dancers lift and spin like so many anthropomorphised stars, moon and planets. The interplay seems endless, the dance athletic and increasing in dynamic intensity as if a choreographic representation of fission. In another sequence they resemble a human Newton’s Cradle, arms and legs flailing, before withdrawing warily like a fading family portrait exposed to a dose of solar radiation. At 25 minutes, the work feels just a tad too long, but it’s a great piece of original and individual work superbly realised by the tireless exertions of Juliette Barton, Richard Cilli, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap.

The best is yet to come however. Returning from the interval, many in the audience were met with a solid wall of bodies, forcing us to form a giant circle as we watched two men dance out a playground fight before being allowed to take our seats again. Shian Law’s Epic Theatre went on to explore, in 30 fascinating minutes, the boundaries between dancer and non-dancer, performer and audience. A couple of dozen volunteers blended seamlessly with 11 SDC professionals helped by dimly lit vistas of backs, gestures and figures walking in a seemingly endless procession.

What You See

The piece is choreographed to a brilliant score – half club soundtrack, half dramatic thriller – manipulated in real time by Marco Cher-Gibard. Barely-glimpsed figures break out in frenetic bursts, dancers shock each other into action, men pick up women like mannequins, constantly questioning who is more skilful: the carrier or the carried. There is an exciting sense of danger about all of this, with the dancers frequently invading what feels like the audience’s personal space. Law does tension really well, those giving focus tied to the objects of their attention by invisible elastic bands of energy.

Although he embraces stillness, Law’s seeming inaction contains enormous vitality and intent – he even makes an appearance at one point to adjust the tilt of the odd head or two. When the dance proper finally arrives it’s fast, tight, pumping. Briefly addressing his audience at the end, Law describes theatre as an irreducible fact “that a group of people is looking at another group of people”. But, he seems to be asking in this utterly magnetic piece, who is watching who?