Mod Dance: Suite Synergy

When Graeme Murphy created Free Radicals 17 years go, he set out to synchronise percussive sounds with the human body. The percussion, he explained, is “like the skeleton of the dancers. You can almost hear their bones rattling. In its most synchronised moments, you feel like the dancers are like little speakers, generating the sound that comes flying out of them.

“When I watch it, I don’t know if the musicians are generating music or the dancers are generating sound.”

Elements of the original Free Radicals form part of Suite Synergy, the first work of the new Mod Dance Company whose Sydney season opened this week.

Murphy’s choreography is at the core of the production while the piece is carried by the music of composer, Michael Askill, and three other percussionists, Stephanie Mudford, Rebecca Lloyd-Jones and Cameron Kennedy, who appear onstage throughout as they play 50 individual instruments. The concept as a whole, however, is by Mod Dance’s artistic director, Brett Morgan.

Murphy’s original aim for Free Radicals is still evident in the new piece. The sounds that form the floor for the dancing come from an impressive arsenal of drums, gongs and chimes, but also from hands clapping, taps tapping, feet stamping, cymbals crashing, and the noise of dancers using one another’s bodies as musical instruments.

These sounds are the narrative line of Suite Synergy while individual solos or duets are like footnotes within it. Emee Dillon is chased and tickled by lights resembling naughty fireflies. Kalman Warhaft is a prisoner of his own body, trapped by an invisible force. Rhys Kosakowski, adorned with drums and cymbals, like a one-man band, is ‘played’ by Askill.

The 18 talented dancers of Mod are ebullient and enthusiastic, and dance well as an ensemble considering their different dance backgrounds, including ballet, contemporary dance, ballroom and such competitive battlegrounds as So You Think You Can Dance.

The privately funded Mod Dance has a manifesto: “to make contemporary dance more commercial, with integrity”.
I believe they’ve achieved that so far. There are plenty of ‘rock ballet’ groups around and while they might be commercially successful, the choreography can also be slapdash. While Suite Synergy has a rock ballet feel to it in parts, and includes plenty of revue elements, clean lines and finesse are not sacrificed for flashy effects.

With its 11 sections, Suite Synergy could also be read as a lesson in dance styles that include pointe work, ballroom, tap, vaudeville moments, and So You Think You Can Dance solos.

The best of the diverse elements showcase some of Murphy’s most tender or quirky signature moves – dancers ‘walking’ on each other’s backs and shoulders or one dancer standing gently on another’s feet as they both dance, as children sometimes do when they waltz with their dad.

I would like to have seen more of Sarah Williams’ ballet solo – Pipe Dreams – but it was obscured by fussy scenic effects, and the solo, Sticky Moments, did not seem to fit within the context of the whole, as its silent film comedy did not gel within the percussive narrative.

For the most part the lighting and set design by Adrian Sterritt worked well with its combination of vertical and horizontal lines as did Jennifer Irwin’s costumes, which range from graphic black and white tights and tops, that resemble the intricate designs of the artist M.C. Escher, to the final red and chartreuse dresses for the girls as the ensemble moves from dynamic moves to a sleepy mood and finally descends as a group to the floor.

Mod Dance is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until 16 April.

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Suite Synergy, photography, © Keith Saunders