Going with the flow: Annabel Knight returns to her first love, musical theatre

After you’ve danced the choreography of Graeme Murphy and Rafael Bonachela, the hip swivelling and high kicks of the Bombie Samba in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang might not seem much of a challenge.

But it’s the change of pace and direction that most attracted Annabel Knight to end her six year career at Sydney Dance Company and go out into the wilderness in search of a new life in dance.

Knight (known to her friends and family as “Bella”) was lucky. Her first audition, for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, brought her a contract and a tour that will take her from Sydney, where the show opened last week, to Melbourne and on to Adelaide.

“I just needed a bit of re-ignition”, she said.

“Also I’m not a spring chicken, I’m 30 next year so I felt it was time to do something else, to meet new people, perform with new people”.

Yes, she agrees, it was pretty gutsy to leave SDC without a new job lined up “but I just had to do it”.

Knight worked through a period of major change at the SDC – from the time Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon left in 2007, to the transition year of guest choreographers in 2008 and on to Rafael Bonachela’s appointment in 2009.

“I joined when Graeme and Janet were still there and had one year with them before the transition year”.

So how did she make the change from Murphy’s choreography to Bonachela’s?

“Graeme always loved a theatrical element within his work. It was mainly his choreography, his intentions. We didn’t really have much involvement in that. It was his thing, whereas Rafael’s more contemporary dance [style] is non-theatrical, non-thematic.

“We were very heavily involved in Rafael’s creation of his works. With his direction we would be given tasks and with his insight, go away and create movement that would correlate with the themes of his works that he was trying to get across.

“I got to experience both worlds, and obviously when Raf came along it was very new in terms of creating the work so that, for me, was a whole new journey in dance, one that I found extremely challenging but very rewarding because I was learning all the time, learning new ways of using my own body.

“I was there [at SDC] throughout the time of huge change. I saw people come and go all the time. You make friends and then they’re leaving…it was a challenging time, but that’s the natural progression of any dance company”. *

Knight named three SDC works as her favourites – Murphy’s Berlin, in which she danced the part made on Janet Vernon, the work 380, choreographed by Bonachela when he was a guest choreographer in 2008, and Bonachela’s duet, Solidad, which she danced with Lachlan Bell.

“It was such a mature work and incredibly sensual and heart felt. I felt a huge connection to that work, not only physically but emotionally”.

Knight’s versatility was nurtured in Newcastle, her birth place and a city known for the quality of its dance teaching. She trained at the school of Marie Walton Mahon where she took both ballet and contemporary dance classes.

“I got to the final stages [of auditions] for the Australian Ballet School and didn’t get accepted, so that was a turning point”.

At 16, “I was accepted into VCA [Victorian College of the Arts] secondary high school, so although I loved ballet I also had all these other parts of me that loved theatrical elements of performing.

“VCA was ideal for me to hone in on all styles of dance and then make the decision for myself as to what I am best at. It allowed me to make more choices. My training opened me up to many different influences”.

When she graduated in 2001, Knight joined Leigh Warren and Dancers in Adelaide then briefly worked with Graeme Murphy in Tivoli, his tribute to the vaudeville circuit.

For Tivoli, Murphy had first collaborated with the Australian Ballet but for a second, commercial production, he needed about 20 more dancers to replace the AB’s dancers. Knight was one of them.

“After Tivoli, I did Cats. We toured in South Korea for a year and we also went to Athens and then I decided to travel in Europe. I heard of this audition for Phantom of the Opera in Stuttgart, so I went, and got the job.

“I lived in Germany for two years doing Phantom. The show was in German so it was a good opportunity for me to learn the language. I was playing the role of Meg so I had a one-on-one phonetics teacher every day so my German was up to a standard for my performance”.

After her years at SDC “I was very keen to get back to musical theatre. I hadn’t used my voice for six years – I didn’t need to. My first concern was to have singing lessons again, not only to get my voice back in shape, but also my confidence. It’s quite daunting getting in front of an audition panel to sing”.

Her teacher, Michael Smith in Sydney, was “fantastic, extremely encouraging. He gave me a lot of confidence to go to auditions”.

Despite her success and commitment to dance over the last decade, Knight says she was “never really a career directed person. I’ve gone with the flow and things have worked out for me”.

* Richard Cilli and Emily Amisano will leave SDC next month after four years with the company.

The relative transience of the company’s ensemble can be seen by the fact that after Cilli and Amisano depart, only one dancer, Chen Wen, will have clocked up six years with the company and only two, Juliette Barton and Janessa Duffy, will have been with the company for a period of four years.

The next longest serving dancers joined in 2010 – Charmene Yap, Bernard Knauer, Natalie Allen and Lachlan Bell.

Of the 17 dancers now in the company, about half are newcomers, with two joining last year and six this year.

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Annabel Knight

Richard Cilli and Annabel Knight, 6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company, photo © Jeff Busby