Conform, Progress, Tempt, Regret: New Breed’s quartet in its second year

Conform is one of the most powerful dance works of the year, lingering in the mind long after the performance has ended.

Watching Conform, choreographed by Kristina Chan for the Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season at Sydney’s Carriageworks, is a visceral experience. The electronic score by James Brown drills down deep into the body and brain.

Just when you think Conform may be too intense and anticipate that the tension will soon give way to some kind of resolution, the SDC dancers and Chan’s choreography ramp it up to a higher level.

Conform begins with eight men standing stock still, just ordinary guys in street clothes minding their own business, their faces expressing nothing much at all.

Very slowly, they subtly adjust their relatively relaxed postures into a more constricted or depressed position. They now appear to be sufferers and with their hunched bodies, they are all, in some way, diminished.

One of the eight dancers seems to be suffering most as he contracts his body forwards and downwards.

Another man places his hand under the cringing man’s head, gradually pushing his body upwards.

From this point onwards, the choreographic focus switches from the outsider – or outsiders – to the rank and file who have the upper hand.

Like soldiers on the warpath, they form restrictive lines and barriers, herding and controlling the outsiders.

Chan has described the choreography of Confirm as “compressed, intimate movements based on physical pressure.

“I was interested in looking at the sort of ambiguity between two men struggling, an alpha male dominating the other, almost as if in a headlock — or a head-butt, actually, like goats going head to head, but also that ambiguity of – are they fighting or are they holding each other up? Also, looking at the relationship between two men, not in a sexual way, just man to man”.

Conform seems close to a denouement when all the men huddle together upstage against a background sunburst of strobe lighting. But that’s not the end.

Two men then move downstage, alternately fighting and supporting one another in what seems like the process of dying very slowly as they move to what sounds like a round of bullets.

In this description Conform may seem grim. But it’s not. Rather it is compelling in the way it reveals the manner in which men suffer but also survive, and the way they respond to the stress of having to conform, to be part of the gang.

The exceptionally talented dancers in Conform are Richard Cilli, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Bernhard Knauer, David Mack, Daniel Roberts, Todd Sutherland, Petros Trekis, and Sam Young-Wright.

New Breed’s program opened with Bernhard Knauer’s Derived, danced to the music of his father, the composer, Jurgen Knauer.

The composition for double bass and cello drove the eight-minute work for four dancers.

The dancers interpreted the music in solos, duos and trios, progressing from stage right to left, within consecutive rectangular spaces defined by the lighting plot.

The isolation of their arms, legs and torsos at times resembled the jointed articulated bodies of wooded sculptures but, of course, with much more fluidity and freedom.

Knauer is a talented choreographer and I hope to see more of his work.

New Breed’s two post-interval works were So Much, Doesn’t Matter choreographed by Fiona Jopp, and Reign, choreographed by Daniel Riley.

Jopp commissioned her husband, Tobias Merz and his sister Alicia Merz to write the score for her piece that’s based on the very old song, Greensleeves.

She’s dug into the history of the Tudor-era song that told the sad story of a man rejected by his lady:

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company

So Much has a false beginning, with a strange man wearing a twigged headpiece, appearing on stage as if he has entered the wrong story at the wrong time. The audience, perhaps, expected a comedy.

Instead, Juliette Barton arrives as a temptress dressed in a huge red skirt that hides the dancers who accompany her. Shades of the crinoline skirts that cover other dancers in some of Jiri Kylian’s works.

With her wide skirt removed, Barton appears as a very seductive, ‘delightful’ lady whose torso is wrapped in criss-crossed apple green fabric.

Jopp’s ideas and themes were described in the program notes as instant gratification, temptation, desire, manipulation, virtue and unity. But so many elements resulted in a slightly blurred narrative that lessened the impact of the often amusing and playful choreography.

Barton, in the role of the seducer, climbed into and out of a number of long red skirts. What did that mean?

Having now read the lyrics of Greensleeves, I think it referred to the words of the song:

I bought thee petticoats of the best,
The cloth so fine as it might be;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
And all this cost I spent on thee

If so, it really does encapsulate the folly of giving or receiving gifts that have little meaning and often end in disappointment.

Daniel Riley, a former dancer with Bangarra Dance Theatre and a successful choreographer, uses movements frequently seen in Bangarra works for his New Breed work, Reign.

The focal point of Reign is the dancer Janessa Duffy who represents what might be the original powerful woman, rubbing her arms with dark sand.

Riley’s aim was to represent powerful women throughout history that were, in the end, undermined and overthrown.

A fascinating idea, although difficult to express in dance.

Dancing as ghostly figures whose faces could not be seen in the darkness of the stage, seven other female SDC dancers represented the women who were, it appeared, subdued and repressed because of their gender.

In this, the second of the three-year New Breed project, each choreographer has clearly put a great deal of thought, time and commitment to their works.

Underwritten by the Balnaves Foundation, New Breed supports choreographers who are building their careers.

It’s an important initiative, one that will, I hope, continue beyond 2016.

This year’s season ends on 13 December.

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Sydney Dance Company, New Breed, So Much, Doesn’t Matter, choreography Fiona Jopp, dancer Juliette Barton, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, New Breed, Reign, choreography Daniel Riley, dancer Janessa Dufty, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, New Breed, Derived, choreography Bernhard Knauer, dancers, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Holly Doyle, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, New Breed, Conform. Choreography by Kristina Chan, photo © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company, New Breed, Conform, choreography by Kristina Chan. Dancers Richard Cilli and Petros Treklis, photo © Peter Greig