Contemporary dance can get the better of even the most adventurous art-lover. It’s abstraction in the extreme, and with no words or story to guide us, the answer to the eternal question “But what does it all mean?” can be infuriatingly elusive. Early on in the Sydney Dance Company’s latest programme of new works, De Novo, it seems like we’ll be left hanging. But the evening is soon resuscitated through an infectious playful energy and absolutely incisive wit.
Artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s new work Emergence is billed as the major drawcard of the evening. A major new commission, featuring a score by composer Nick Wales and indie darling Sarah Blasko, stage and lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, and costumes by tailoring master Dion Lee, it has all the clarity and purity of line we’ve come to expect from Bonachela’s work. But despite Blasko’s soaring and at times heart-rending vocals, the work lacks an emotional core or dramaturgical rigour. If you’ve never seen a Bonachela work before, this is an excellent introduction to his style, and it’s not without merit. But if you’ve experienced any of his recent works for the company, you may be left with a nagging feeling of déjà vu. It’s technically accomplished but there’s a creeping suspicion that it’s not really about anything. The blank expressions and almost languorous efforts of the dancers seem to reinforce this. From the front row their bodies seem almost deflated.
They are immediately reinvigorated after interval, however, with Larissa McGowan’s hilarious and athletic short work Fanatic. McGowan, who has danced and worked with the Australian Dance Theatre for many years, draws on that company’s gestural style of dance to create a clever, irreverent homage to Alien films, Predator films and the (possibly mad) fans who love them. Here the bodies of the three dancers are completely energised, bouncing joyfully around the stage as they recreate key moments from the films (aided by a soundtrack of mashups from the movies and YouTube responses to them). Natalie Allen is charged with channelling Sigourney Weaver/Ripley and her total embodiment of this seminal pop-cultural role is hilarious in its deadly accuracy. Fanatic proves that you don’t have to be making work about anything ‘important’, but that an interesting question can be more interesting to dance around than a complex set.
But the highlight of the evening – and, fortuitously, its conclusion – is Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. With a winning combination of genuinely stunning choreography, clever stage design, a live string quartet and lashings of self-aware irony, it’s a perfect counterpart to Bonachela’s beautiful but opaque aesthetic. Cacti’s commentary on the vainglories and idiosyncrasies of contemporary dance is spot on and side-splittingly funny, but it wouldn’t be half the work it is if Ekman didn’t have the choreographic chops to back it up. Again, the dancers are enlivened, with sweat positively pouring off them as the peals of laughter come thick and fast from the audience. There’s a sincerity in their connection with the work, with each other and with the crowd that seems to illuminate the entire theatre. Making jokes about contemporary dance on the opening night of a contemporary dance programme might be a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but non-initiates to the cult will find relief in the knowledge that someone inside it might be just as confused and frustrated as they are. In the end, though, it’s a deeply affectionate work which despite its outward appearance of fun-poking, demonstrates best of anything on the programme the very best of what this form can do.
Time Out's interview with Sarah Blasko about her Emergence soundtrack.