The way they were, the way they are: Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary

Performing arts companies celebrate their anniversaries in different ways but the most popular choice is a “best of the works” showcase.

You know how it goes.

Bits and pieces from the first year’s repertoire, any audience pleaser, any award winner and, above all, a nod to artistic directors past and present.

But that’s not the path Bangarra Dance Company took this year for its 30th and definitely not the choice for Sydney Dance Company’s 50th.

So rather than focusing on choreographers and repertoire, the Sydney Dance Company decided to concentrate on the company’s dancers past and present and the audiences who have watched them over the years.

The anniversary production is a double bill opening with Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths, followed by Us 50, choreographed specifically for the anniversary by Gideon Obarzanek.

Instead of the standard “best of” template, based on repertoire, Obarzanek chose to focus on the dancers and the audiences who’ve watched them for many decades.

Obarzanek has explained: “When we speak about 50 years of a dance company we also speak about 50 years of dance making. What is made, however, is ephemeral.

“The dancer’s body can be videoed and photographed but dance itself only truly exists when it is danced.

“So the history of the company is stored and transmitted through the bodies of its dancers and collected in the memory of its audiences”.

On the opening night of Us 50 (2 November) it was clear that his work represented the Sydney Dance Company as a community from its beginning to the present day, rather than a piece that shouted “look at me and my clever choreography”.

Those expecting a choreographic masterpiece should consider Obarzanek’s past.

His style is based partly on folk dance, as seen before in L’Chaim, meaning a toast ‘to life’, choreographed for the Sydney Dance Company in 2014.

In any case a ‘best of’ show was very unlikely for the 50th anniversary as that would mean the works of former SDC choreographers would have to be acknowledged, in particular the works of Graeme Murphy who, with his partner, Janet Vernon, spent 31 years at the helm.

For the past 40 years the Sydney Dance Company’s repertoire has been dominated by the works of the artistic directors, Murphy and Bonachela and while they’ve also commissioned other choreographers, a Murphy/Bonachela double bill has never been staged.

Nevertheless, Bonachela acknowledged those 40 years with a film (by Philippe Charluet and Pedro Greig) showing footage from both Murphy/Vernon years as well as Bonachela’s repertoire to date.

The link between the two men was Gideon Obarzanek who danced in the SDC when Murphy was the director and who choreographed works for Bonachela.

This connection was evident in Us 50 with 10 SDC alumni representing the past as they danced alongside 15 current company members.

Throughout the season a group of 25 men and women took to the stage to represent the past, or as Obarzanek explained, “they represented the keepers of the company’s history”.

The audience group, who changed to a new group with each performance, were directed live on stage by Charmene Yap, the assistant choreographer, who talked them through the movements by way of earphones.

Throughout Us 50 the groups blended together, first with a series of connections between one of the alumni and one dancer. The first couple were Sheree da Costa, a former principal with the Australian Ballet and dancer with the SDC, and company member Jesse Scales.

Coming back to the stage after many years, da Costa put her heart and soul into the work. (She had been taking ballet classes for months and her dedication showed).

Sydney Dance Company audiences who’ve watched the SDC from the 1970s to the 1990s were able to see once more the alumni, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengally, Bradley Chatfield, Kip Gamblin, Sheree da Costa, Nina Veretennikova, Linda Ridgway Gamblin, Kathryn Dunn, Lea Francis and Wakako (Kubara) Asano.

Perhaps some of the alumni could form a second SDC group similar to Jiri Kylian’s third company of older dancers for the Nederlands Dans Theater (unfortunately a thing of the past).

6 Breaths, danced to a commissioned score by Ezio Bosso, and first staged in 2010, refers to the stages of life.

As Bonachela explains: “The first breath is the life breath; the second is breathlessness – out of breath; the third, the crying breath or where breath is interrupted by emotion; the fourth is in the same breath; the fifth breath is a whisper – under one’s breath – and the sixth is last breath”.

A duet by Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleioris, representing the crying breath, was a compelling expression of the fear of loss, the need for connection and the inevitability of disconnection.

SDC’s first 2020 production from 21 March to 4 April is a triple bill titled Bonachela/Forsythe.

Bonachela’s new work, Impermanence, with a score performed live on stage by the Australian String Quartet is followed by Forsythe’s quartet, titled N.N.N.and Bonachela’s award winning duet, E2 7SD, first staged in London in 2004.

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Dimitri Kleioris and Riley Fitzgerald, 6 Breaths, photo, © Don Arnold

Us50, photo © Pedro Greig

Kip Gamblin, centre and Bradley Chatfield, third from the right, Us50, photo © Pedro Greig

Us50, photo © Pedro Greig

Sheree da Costa, Us50, photo © Pedro Greig