Beasts in the wilderness, spirits in flight: SDC’s new double bill

We’re edging closer to the third decade of the 21st century but as the year 2020 approaches we seem to be no closer to expecting a woman will be the choreographer of a main stage work.

Wildebeest, the opening work of the Sydney Dance Company’s new double bill, showed without a doubt that the freelance Australian choreographer, Gabrielle Nankivell, has all it takes to join the league of outstanding female choreographers whose work is shown on main stages rather than smaller venues, workshops and dance festivals.

Her narrative structure, attention to detail, humour and empathy all shone through in her new interpretation of Wildebeest, first performed at Sydney’s Carriageworks two years ago.

The title is obscure but the emotional impact is strong and clear.

Nankivell’s Wildebeest creature is metaphor for struggle and survival, as well as beauty and pride.

With its skinny legs, Viking-helmet horns, shaggy mane and schnauzer like pointy beard, the real wildebeest is not the most handsome animal on the planet.

But from the moment Bernhard Knauer appears in the first solo of the work we can connect with the powerful creature.

Like a newborn beast in the wilderness, Knauer struggles to stand like a wobbly-legged calf, but soon finds his place in his strange new surroundings.

He’s joined by more creatures, some with another, some in a tribe who swirl as if in a futile stampede and one who kneels as he watches in the manner of Nijinsky’s faun, still, proud, alert.

Nankivell has described her own choreography as “bespoke, detailed, evocative and sometimes a little wild”.

Wildebeest represents each of these words. Bespoke because the choreography is exact and not derivative.

Detailed because the hands and feet of the dancers are unusually expressive. They tell their own little stories with a twist of a wrist, fingers that seem to dance by themselves, preparing to form shadow puppet creatures, and feet that stretch or turn inwards as if they are crawling into their shells.

Evocative because Wildebeest brings to mind past memories and images.

As for the wildness, the slow and languid movements of the work are interspersed with herd-like running and mechanical, clockwork movements that appear to show a transition from the animalistic to a world in which man becomes a machine.

In one duet Todd Sutherland stands behind Holly Doyle as their coordinated arms and hands represent the fast moving workings of an especially complex clock.

Behind the couple the ensemble’s mechanical, robotic gestures add to the sense of time passing quickly for no particular purpose but compulsion.

The modern dance choreographer, Gertrud Bodenwieser expressed the same idea in her signature work, Demon Machine. In a program note, she said the work reflected how “the machine gains ascendancy over the souls of the people instead of man dominating the machine. The vital problem of our age”.

Wildebeest ends as begins with a riveting solo danced by Janessa Dufty whose loose and free-flowing hair brings us back to the wildness of the wildebeest’s head.

Nankivell and her composer for Wildebeest, Luke Smiles, have worked together for more than a decade. I hope they collaborate for at least another decade.

After Wildebeest ends, the Sydney Dance Company’s dancers have only a 20 minute interval before they’re on stage once again in the premiere of Rafael Bonachela’s, Anima, a word that connects with Wildebeest and the umbrella title of the double bill, Untamed. But Anima is not so much about wild creatures as it is about the human soul and spirit.

For Anima, Bonachela commissioned a three-person Euro team of collaborators, the visual designer, Clemens Habicht, an Australian based in Paris, Samuel Webster, an Australian who works in Italy and is credited in the program as a ‘dramaturgy consultant’, and Dobrinka Tabakova, the London-based Bulgarian composer whose score for Anima are two of her works, Insight for string solo and Concerto for cello and strings

If Anima was encapsulated in two words they might be ‘line and lighting’.

Bonachela’s choreography is more airborne than many of his other works, with lifts that refer to flight, although Anima’s choreographic centerpiece is an earthbound duet – for Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis – that reflects struggle, passion and conflict.

In their costumes of white or grey briefs, shorts, and tops, the ensemble’s elegant lines resemble the precise images of Lois Greenfield, whose photographs represent ‘moving stills’ in which the dancers are captured on camera as they leap.

Anima, though, is not so much based on lines as it is on light with Habicht’s projected designs depicting blurred mirror images of the way in which the dancers move on stage.

Beginning with a puff of white on a blue background, the white and blue projections give way to clouds of colour, from red to white to green, matched with lighting from Bonachela’s frequent collaborator, Benjamin Cisterne.

Bonachela acknowledges in the program another group of collaborators, the entire ensemble of the Sydney Dance Company. He is blessed to have such a talented group of dancers who, in essence, have two jobs, physical and mental, movement and creation.

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Anima, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Anima, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Anima, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Trelkis, photo © Pedro Greig

Anima, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Trelkis, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig

Wildebeest, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Pedro Greig