Lights, camera, action: Bonachela orchestrates the pow! factor

It’s often the case that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In Sydney Dance Company’s new work the reverse applies. The parts are greater than the sum of its whole.

Many elements of 2 One Another, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela, are impressive, intriguing and engaging.

But for me, the work as a whole did not coalesce into a theatrical statement made by one authorial voice.

The 16 dancers of the company give their all, dancing with energy that, in turn, energises the audience.

Their commitment is clear. After all, they created much of the work. In one video on the company’s website, the dancer, Tom Bradley, says the development of 2 One Another was based on tasks suggested by Bonachela. This method “provokes us to push on. He carves shapes out of our bodies”.

In one article published before the opening of the work the dancers explained that one day, without warning, they were asked to reveal their innermost thoughts to the writer, Samuel Webster, (he was asked to collaborate by Bonachela). Webster directed a number of statements/questions to the dancers and recorded their responses on video.

One was “I constantly crave affection. How does that make you feel?” Another “I broke the rules and I cried”.

This is Pina Bausch territory. She liked to break her dancers down and then re-make them. The technique is risky. Exploitation is only a moment away and may not add much to the whole.

The dancers were of course just one part of the collaborative process of this hour-long work, one that involved Amy Hollingsworth, (SDC’s dance director), Samuel Webster, Tony Assness, the set and costume designer, Benjamin Cisterne, the lighting designer, Nick Wales, the composer who also selected the work of other composers, Justin Ridler, a photographer who captured the process of creation, and four people who managed the ever-changing patterns on the giant LED screen that covered the back of the Sydney Theatre stage.

Tony Assness came up with the concept of the screen, one designed to add a pow! factor to the work, but at times threatened to overpower the entire piece.

The work begins in silence, with all 16 dancers on stage in dark green-grey leotards – some in tights only. The look was high-end fashion garments – Wolford body suits, say, with cut outs and visible, shiny back zips. The dancers later changed into fire engine-red body suits, draped and gathered around their torsos.

The two different costume choices indicate the fashion background of Assness, (who came into the orbit of Sydney Dance Company when former executive director, Noel Staunton, asked him to design the super-sized brochure for the company’s 2008 season. Assness continues to collaborate with Staunton who is now artistic director of the Brisbane Festival.)

In his design notes for the program, Assness refers to the title of the work, 2 One Another, as being about “the experience of connecting and disconnecting – to be one, alone, singular…” and “to be or to share with another (which) initiates a whole different colour-way of emotions”. (‘Colour-way’ is fashion speak for different colours.)

Following the initial silence, the first section of the work is danced to a piece entitled Oort, from the album Cosmos, by the artist Murcof, aka Fernando Corona.

Thanks to the trusty search engine, I now know that Oort is “an immense spherical cloud surrounding the planetary system and extending approximately three light years, about 30 trillion kilometres from the sun”.

So this choice of the opening music, a blend of acoustic instruments and electronics, supports Bonachela’s concept of beginnings – that “we enter this world with nothing and are shaped” and thus form relationships.

The screen soon flashes to life with an eye-attacking blast of light matched by a blast of sound, but the sensory assault falls away, with both music and screen settling down to a more gentle mood, reflecting the fragmentary words written by Webster.

A sample: “We tried to stay apart, to keep our own friends and to keep our lives intact, but we fell, and we fell, and we fell, then we were alone together. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it?”

It’s possible to reproduce these words only because they are printed in the program. The recorded words threaded throughout the performance were hard to detect, whispery, more like a shadow than a presence.

Apart from occasional moments when the screen faded away to reveal a crumpled, grey, papery background, the choreographed light display was a constant presence. The screen flickered from a vertical band of moving lights, to a circle of lights that grew ever larger, to a chain-like pattern, like beacons on the water of a distant horizon, to an all-pink screen, then all-blue, and later, to a jolly Christmas pattern – very pretty, but often very distracting.

The choreography, encompassing Bonachela’s favoured shoulder and hip rotations, showed more classically based movement and steps than is usual in his work, and was evident in particular in the dancing of Chen Wen and Andrew Crawford, the latter a remarkably strong partner who represented a kind of tent pole on which much of the new work rests.

When Charmaine Yap is dancing alone or in a duet, she becomes a very powerful focus of attention. Hers was an outstanding performance, matched by that of Natalie Allen and by Juliette Barton in the duet that brings the work to a meditative close.

The solos and leg-wrapping duets, for me, were more successful than the ensembles which were busy with body rippling groupings and gesturing which recalled a little too much of Wayne McGregor’s work and, in the running on and slouching off moments, a little too much of that once revolutionary ballet, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, by William Forsythe.

More importantly, the ensembles’ patterns and actions did not add much to the concept of Another, that is, the people outside our own inner circle of intimates.

It’s been a while since SDC dancers created their own works, as they did under the artistic directorship of Graeme Murphy and as they did at the CarriageWorks season in Sydney in 2008. I’d like to see a workshop program in which their voices are heard directly, not filtered through others.

And I’d also like to see a work by Bonachela, one day, in which the dancers’ tasks and improvisation don’t form so much of the basis of the production. This might allow his inner world to become more visible and that, in turn, might affect us more intimately through a personal story told.

Whatever the critics write about this production, it is clear that Sydney audiences have embraced Bonachela and his company, one that is now moving upwards in the arc of love that Murphy inspired at Sydney Dance in the late 1970s.

The opening night audience seemed entranced and the evening was given a touch of glamour by the presence of SDC board member, Darcey Bussell, and Cate Blanchett.

One person, though, was absent – Janine Kyle, once international tour manager and latterly creative business manager of the company. Kyle was an indispensable part of the troika that ran SDC under the artistic direction of Murphy and Janet Vernon. She left late last year after many decades with the company.

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Sydney Dance Company, 2 One Another, photo © Justin Ridler

Sydney Dance Company, 2 One Another, photo © Justin Ridler