Dancing in the shadows and playing with pomposity

First impression of Rafael Bonachela’s new work, Lux Tenebris: Tribal clusters struggling to escape confined spaces.

It’s hard to tell, though, as the glimpses of the dancers are fleeting, only visible as the lights flash on and off. But when, at last, the stage lighting is bright enough to reveal the movement across the stage, the effect is like one of those astonishing photographs by Lois Greenfield who made her name with a unique style of capturing dancers hovering in the air, all buoyancy and no gravity. (See the images below.)

The Sydney Dance Company ensemble swirls through air, their hair flying high, rolling on the floor, barrel rolling and extending their legs as if they were blades slicing outwards and upwards. Nick Wales’ score begins with the sound of bees and soon escalates in strength to the level of heavy traffic rumbling down a road sending vibrations rippling out to the horizon.

In the Lux Tenebris’ program, Wales describes the way Bonachela urged him to go “over the edge” with the score, asking for bitter and harsh sounds. And over the edge he went.

The score encompasses an exceptionally wide range of elements, including the sounds of the city, electronic club music (I’m quoting again from the program), “recordings of Pluto’s atmosphere, Monks in Seoul…and fireworks in Lismore”.

Not that you’d necessarily recognise any of that odd trio of sounds. Could Wales be having a little laugh when he wrote of Lismore’s fireworks?

‘Lux in Tenebris’, meaning ‘light in darkness’, is interpreted in Bonachela’s work as the contrasting ways we connect with one another, and the memories of our relationships. It’s a long piece with no resolution as the work ends with the dancers walking and running across the stage as if they’re destined for a life of eternal searching.

Bonachela expresses their angst through repeated rotations of the dancers’ shoulders, elbows, and lower arms, a clenching of hands and a raised chest as they lift their faces to the light.

If Lux Tenebris is a four-part collaboration (choreography, music, performance, lighting) then first among equals is the performance, with every one of the dancers showing outstanding stamina, precision, power and speed. The work has 10 solos, various duets and trios, quartets and sextets, with the solos and duets making the biggest impression.

The choreography for the solos of Juliette Barton and Janessa Dufty was particularly outstanding and it was good to see many dancers given a chance to show their individuality in a solo, among them SDC newcomers, Nelson Earl and Josephine Weise.

Weighted against Lux Tenebris is the relentlessness of the repetitive electronic score. By halfway mark, it felt as if the bees had taken up residence within my ears and wouldn’t depart and that, in turn, diminished the power of the choreography and narrative.

The highlight of Lux Tenebris is the choreography for the two duets performed by Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland. Their connection is fascinating in its complexity and beautiful in its interpretation.

Lux Tenebris is the second half of SDC’s double bill, titled CounterMove, that opened in Sydney and will be travelling to Canberra and Melbourne in May.

The opening work is Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, first performed by the company in 2013.

It’s remarkable that all the SDC dancers perform in both works and that means a very strenuous season. The choreography of Cacti may look like the less demanding piece for the dancers but it has significant challenges, among them exactitude, perfection in timing, finesse and acting ability. The dancers more than met the challenge.

Cacti is Ekman’s response to self-important critics who show their superiority with wordiness and convoluted phrases. In the voiceover text of Cacti we hear the inner thoughts of a pompous (imaginary) critic working on his next review that aims to impress the audience with its authority.

Near the end of Cacti, we also hear the inner thoughts of two dancers as they rehearse a tricky duet (in which Bernhard Knauer and Charmene Yap excelled).

The duet is briefly interrupted by the appearance of a dead cat thrown onto the stage. Maybe the dead cat refers to an incident at the Bolshoi Ballet in the 19th century when dead cats were actually thrown onto the stage by jealous dancers as they tried to get their own back on their rivals.

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold but with Cacti, Ekman got his own back by creating a dish served with wit and humour as it laughs at art criticism and the clichés of contemporary dance, among them ultra-solemn faces, busy side lighting, flashing lights – in this case CACTI flashing on each side of the stage in capital letters – down lights and descending lights, Egyptian arms, semaphore arms, shouts, stomps and clapping, flesh-coloured bodysuits and group running.

Cacti is loved by audiences and performed by many companies. Bravo, SDC, to be one of the first to take Cacti into the repertoire.

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Lux Tenebris, Sydney Dance Company, Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland, photo © Peter Greig

Lux Tenebris, Sydney Dance Company, Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland, photo © Peter Greig

Lux Tenebris, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Peter Greig

Cacti, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Peter Greig

Cacti, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Peter Greig

Cacti, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Peter Greig

Lux Tenebris, Sydney Dance Company, Nelson Earl, Holly Doyle, Fiona Jopp, David Mack, photo © Peter Greig

Jacinthe Burton, Jesus Olivera, Alyssa Maksym and Jason Garcia Ignacio of Eryc Taylor Dance, 2013, photo © Lois Greenfield