To Life! Sydney Dance Company takes a step away from the dark side

If you’ve never attended a Jewish wedding it’s hard to visualise the power of the Hora, danced by the wedding party and guests in concentric circles to celebrate the bridal couple and, well, life in general.

At first, you might be reluctant to jump into the celebrations, to hold hands and dance until you’re giddy and out of breath, but the music, and the swirl of the dancers mean that it’s virtually impossible to just stand there and watch from the sidelines.

The dancers and the dance represent a close community, all for one and one for all, united with a toast sure to end one of the speeches, L’Chaim – “to life”.

That’s the title of Gideon Obarzanek’s new work in which the Sydney Dance Company’s ensemble expresses their unity, with everyday gestures and then simple folk dances. Yet, each dancer in the ensemble shows their individuality in the way they move, the way they interpret the dance and in the colour of their everyday clothes ranging from purple to red, blue to orange, and green to lavender.

But there is an outsider, one who stands aloof in the form of a disembodied voice speaking from the audience, who asks the dancers personal questions about themselves and their dancing. A microphone is passed from dancer to dancer as they answer the outsider who identifies the performers by the colour of their clothes and the way she perceives their personality.

“Is it hard to balance, to focus?” “Who’s the youngest, the oldest?” “How many years have you got left to dance?” “Say your cat died yesterday and you had to bury it – would you be sad when you were dancing?”

The outsider sounds irritated, tense, then sad, as she reveals that she has “lost her body”.

The dancers suggest that she join them on the stage. She agrees, walks through the auditorium, disappears backstage then steps onto the stage, at first hesitant and shy then becoming one of the community.

If I’m reading this correctly the message is clear enough – consolation in community, unity through dance, and an investigation into what dance really means to the watcher and dancer.

L’Chaim is the latest of Obarzanek’s dance-talk pieces that he’s developed over the past five years or so, among them a solo for himself, Faker, and There’s Definitely a Prince Involved, for the Australian Ballet.

The role of the outsider is played by Zoe Coombs Marr in Sydney and in Melbourne and Canberra will be played by David Woods, an actor, director and academic who is also the writer of L’Chaim.

Obarzanek chose three other collaborators who have all worked with him before, the composer, Stefan Gregory, stage and lighting designer, Benjamin Cisterne and costume designer, Harriet Oxley.

Either deliberately or not, L’Chaim seems still in workshop stage, without a fully resolved narrative, but I admired Obarzanek’s contrast of community and individuality and the way that the company dancers adapted so well to his concept and perhaps even enjoyed the relaxation of not having to dance in the demanding, fast and sometimes frenetic way that some choreographers impose on them.

Even Andrew Crawford, who normally stands out for his height and charismatic presence blends in with the crowd, becoming part of an amorphous whole.

L’Chaim is at odds with the first two pieces on the program, relating only in an abstract way by the umbrella title – Interplay.

Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor (an addition to his numeral titles, from 2 One Another, 6 Breaths, 360 °, and Square Map of Q4) is a work for 15 dancers and one violinist that is series of solos, duets, trios and ensembles that goes full out and flat out for 38 minutes.

If the length matched the duration of the music to which it is set, Bach’s Partita 2 in D minor, then the work would last half an hour, but Bonachela has inserted four ‘transitions’ called ‘2inD miniatures’ that composer Nick Wales describes as “clouds of sound…to directly contrast the rich harmonies and forward propulsion of the Bach Partita movements”.

The heroine of the evening is the violinist, Veronique Serret, who plays on stage at every performance (or so it seems, as there are no others listed as covers). She is the column around which the dancers express the music. (Serret collaborated with Bonachela in LANDforms in 2011).

While the transition concept is interesting enough, the overall length of close to 40 minutes means the demands on the audience are significant.

The first solo and duet, are mesmeric, representing the truth of George Balanchine’s words “dancing is music made visible” but after 20 minutes or so, the consistent tempo means there’s no reprieve, no stop, and a blur of speed that tends to take the mind into a trance and lose focus.

For the Bach movements, the dancers in 2 in D Minor are dressed in non-gender specific costumes of black pants and open black jackets, while the dancers wear white for the transition segments.

Each member of the audience is likely to read a different scenario into the white segments. For me, it seemed the transitions represented the inner spirits of bodies of the dancers in black, but the narrative faded as the dancing continued at much the same pace from start to finish.

In his program note, Bonachela writes that 2 in D Minor’s choreography is “devised through a series of tasks that draw on moments from each dancer’s recent personal experience”. But we in the audience don’t see that. The private stories shared within a rehearsal studio are not visible to the audience in the way, say, that Pina Bausch’s insistence on personal stories illuminated her work.

Raw Models, choreographed by Jacopo Godani, is the sandwich in Interplay’s trio of works. Godani favours head rolls, splayed hands and blackouts as the black-costumed dancers negotiate his apocalyptic narrative in which you might imagine primeval creatures, combatants, and/or anger. The commissioned score by Ulrich Mueller and Siegfried Roessert was reminiscent of the movie music that accompanies an underground car park scene in a movie where an unsuspecting driver returns to his or her car not knowing that a person of interest to the police occupies the back seat.

In his choreography note, republished from Sydney Dance Company’s 2011 program, Godani writes: “In this piece my ideal is to propose the prototype of a micro-social structure functioning on communication, empathy and complicity. All members of this small society have a common objective to achieve, understand and rediscover the primitive and universal information which is already present in our DNA, that knowledge which is suffocated in a society that works on a pre-customised and branded method of fabricating mediocre methods of life”.

If that tickles your imagination, you may well love Raw Models.

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L'Chaim, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

L’Chaim, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

L'Chaim, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

L’Chaim, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

2 in D Minor, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

2 in D Minor, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

2 in D Minor, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro

2 in D Minor, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Wendell Teodoro