On parade: Sydney Dance Company takes to the catwalk for Les Illuminations

Sydney Dance Company’s new production, Les Illuminations, has all the hallmarks of an exclusive event.

It’s impossible to buy a ticket, (“allocation exhausted”, according to the Sydney Opera House website), it showcases a high profile singer – the soprano, Katie Noonan – one of Australia’s leading fashion designers, Toni Maticevski, and eight of the SDC’s most accomplished dancers.

Les Illuminations is presented in the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, with seating configured as if it was the red carpeted venue for a fashion show catwalk.

The setting means that the audience can relate to the dancers in a more intimate way than in the SDC’s usual venue, the Sydney Theatre, and engage with them on a more personal level.

At this close proximity, the dancers’ faces ‘speak’ as much as their bodies, and for the audience, there’s the additional benefit, or distraction, of watching the reaction to the performance on the faces of the audience on the other side of the catwalk.

In the first half of the show, the dancers hold the eye while in the second half, the musicians, and Noonan, tend to dominate the dancers.

Noonan and the string orchestra, conducted by Roland Peelman, are at the top of the T-shaped catwalk while the dancers’ stage is the long and not very wide catwalk itself.

This means that the direction and impulse of their movement is, of necessity, restricted, but the dancers seem to adapt well to their confined space.

The title of the work, Les Illuminations, relates only to the second part of the evening as the production opens with Benjamin Britten’s composition, Simple Symphony, composed (in 1933/34) for a string orchestra.

Its four movements, Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Sarabande and Frolicsome Finale reflect the duets danced by two couples.

Simple Symphony seems made for dancing and SDC wasn’t the first company to use it as the inspiration for a dance work. In 2009 Melissa Barak choreographed a short ballet with the same name, for New York City Ballet.

Rafael Bonachela’s choreography is both balletic and playful, announcing its upbeat energy with Bernhard Knauer holding Janessa Dufty in a triumphant lift.

Knauer and Dufty seem destined to dance together, so connected were they in their partnering and exuberance. Their duet was a tremendous opening to the show, not least for their eye contact with one another and their joyful engagement with the audience.

Maticevski dressed the dancers in sheer, nude coloured body suits, some with twisted fabric, and decorated with pale blue ornamentation at the neckline for the two women and the same ornamentation on the shoulder line for the two men.

The second couple, Fiona Jopp and Andrew Crawford, were more solemn in their demeanour but equally impressive.

Crawford’s strong ballet technique was impressively clear.

The partnering throughout Simple Symphony stressed the equal power of both the men and the women in the way they touched and supported one another.

After a very brief pause, the weighty second section of the evening began with Charmene Yap, Juliette Barton, Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper portraying the thoughts and dreams conjured up in the text of the prose poems from Les Illuminations, written by Arthur Rimbaud.

[Bonachela is the third choreographer to tackle Les Illuminations, following Frederick Ashton and Richard Alston.*]

Les Illuminations was written following Rimbaud’s intense affair (when he was still in his teens) with another poet, Paul Verlaine, 10 years his senior. In 1872 the couple embarked on a journey in London, once described (by Frederick Ashton’s biographer, Julie Kavanagh) as a ‘shameful’ sojourn, a wild debauch of drugs, drunkenness, vagrancy and forbidden passion.

Many years later, in 1939, Benjamin Britten, (whose centenary is being celebrated this year) set nine of Rimbaud’s Illuminations’ prose poems to music.

For the brief SDC season of four nights, [plus a preview on 27 August], Katie Noonan set the wheels in motion, suggesting that Bonachela choreograph a work to the Britten score.

Noonan also took charge of the design, suggesting that Toni Maticevski, her favourite designer, create the costumes.

Bonachela has taken the text of nine poems, titled Fanfare, Villes, Phrase, Antique, Royauté, Marine, Interlude, Being Beauteous, Parade, and Départ, as one starting point but his program note also refers to the tempestuous and obsessive love affairs that both Rimbaud and Verlaine, and Britten and his lover, the tenor, Peter Pears, were going through at the time of creating the poems and music.

Not that you’d know that if you hadn’t read the notes, done some research or had a good understanding of French, the language of Les Illuminations, written and sung.

Rimbaud – and Britten – focused on the repeated line in Les Illuminations – “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone have the key to this savage parade”) – a line that perhaps gave the collaborators the idea of setting the dance work in the manner of a fashion parade.

The choreography is angsty with emphasis on arching backs, crawling, entwining, contractions, ripples and face and head touching.

After reading an English translation of Royauté, one of the poems chosen by Britten, I thought it may relate to duet for the elfin Charmene Yap and the elegant and domineering Juliette Barton, the latter wearing a black-feathered headpiece.

Their power struggle appeared to reflect the lines in the poem:

“One fine morning, amongst a most gentle people, a magnificent couple were shouting in the square: ‘My friends, I want her to be queen!’ ‘I want to be queen!’”

Whatever the motivation for each segment of the work, the duets for a man and woman, two women and two men are clearly about passion, power, betrayal and disappointment.

Barton excels throughout – with her presence, her breadth of movement and her calm control.

Bradley is burdened by having to wear a sheer, black fabric mask covering his mouth and wrapped around his ears but, with the exception of this oddity, Maticevski has succeeded with his designs of sheer, black, high necked and sleeveless body suits, especially those for the women. Each of the costumes features the designer’s trademark back zip.

Les Illuminations is well worth a further season, perhaps underwritten by benefactors, so that a wider audience can see the work.

* Ashton’s Les Illuminations was choreographed to Britten’s score for the New York City Ballet in 1950. Richard Alston’s Rumours/Visions is set to the same score.

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